Islam and Liberalism
What are the progressive roots within Islam, and can they be strengthened? A roundtable discussion.
Democracy brought together four prominent Muslim Americans who represent a range of progressive political viewpoints to ask them about the progressive roots of Islam, how the religion might revive those more liberal traditions, the extent to which Muslims and non-Muslims should criticize Islam, and more. The discussion took place on April 19, in Representative Keith Ellison’s Capitol Hill office. It was co-moderated byDemocracy editor Michael Tomasky and Nation contributor Ali Gharib.
As we went to press, we asked the participants for their reactions to the Orlando tragedy, which are appended at the bottom of this article.
Michael Tomasky: First question. You’re all here because you are, to one degree or another, liberal and Muslim, and a lot of people—and I don’t mean Donald Trump voters, I mean readers of this journal—wouldn’t know how to square that. So I’d like all of you to explain, in your ways, how you can be both of those things. What is it in Islam that leads to and informs a liberal political point of view? Congressman, if you want to start.
Keith Ellison: Well, you know, in every surah in the Quran, it starts a certain kind of way: “In the name of the most merciful, the most compassionate.” So how in the world can you take that entity, that we say is the most merciful and the most compassionate, and not follow those same attributes? And to be compassionate and generous and kind, loving, honest, truthful. I don’t know if that’s liberal or not, but it’s what I’m trying to do. Failed plenty. But strive to do those things.
And I have a district where people have needs. As a politician I’ve got to solve problems. People are hungry, people don’t have food, people don’t have a place to live. I would like the foreign policy of my country to be just and right. Justice shouldn’t stop at the water’s edge, we should embody that. Not in an obtrusive way, but in a collaborative way. Certainly not in an exploitative and militaristic and forceful way. So, I mean, I guess if I’m a progressive or liberal as a Muslim, it comes naturally out of what my faith calls upon me to do.
And I’ll just say quickly before I turn it over. You know, I’m a black man from America. I was born in a Christian household. I was not born in freedom. When I was born in 1963, America did not allow black people to vote in large parts of it. The 1964 Civil Rights Act hadn’t come yet, the 1965 Voting Rights Act had not come yet. My children are the first black people in America born with all of their rights. And at an early age, I couldn’t square how I and Bull Connor could have the same religion. How could I and the racist conceive of the divine in the same way? It’s impossible. So eyes begin to search. Some African Americans found black liberation theology; others found Catholic social teaching—that’s what my mother found. I found Islam.
And so at the age of 19 I took shahada [the Islamic proclamation of faith]. It’s been a great experience for me. So some people come from other places, they may have a completely different orientation than I have. The orientation that I come from is, the Klan burned a cross on my grandfather’s lawn, and all the people who dragged my people from Africa, they were fine Christians. Now this doesn’t make me against Christianity—I understand there’s more than that. But that’s my story. Other people, they may have a story with Islam, they see it as oppressive. I just don’t have that experience, so I can’t share that view. My experience is, Islam is a haven, Islam is a refuge, Islam is tolerance and inclusion, and stands for justice against oppression.
Asra Nomani: I am a Muslim born in India. Born in 1965, I’m the first generation of my family that is free of colonialism. My dada, or my paternal grandfather, was a defense attorney for the freedom fighters fighting the British, who were being sent to the Guantanamo bay of India, the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.
When I came to America, what we brought with our family was the idea of the progressive and secular tradition of Islam that we had known in India, and the history to which I return in my identity as a Muslim feminist is one of an Islam that was progressive, in the seventh century, so when women were being thrashed, brutally, by their husbands, Islam modified it so that there were limits. When women were no witness to acts of crime, they became a witness. When they got no inheritance, they [later] got some inheritance.
But my activism and writing today is about the fact that that progressive spirit should continue to the twenty-first century. And so where women were given some protections from their husbands in the seventh century, they should be given equal protection today. There should be zero tolerance for domestic violence. Where they were given witness then so that two women equaled one male witness, they should be equal to men as witness today. Where they were given some inheritance rights, they should be given equal inheritance rights to their brothers today.
I anchor my practice and my belief and philosophy about Islam on the same types of verses that the Congressman is citing, of “stand up for justice, even if it’s against your kin” and “be compassionate, be merciful.” But I also have my eyes wide open to the fact that actually not every single chapter in the Quran begins with bismillah ar-rahman ar-rahim [“In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful”]. There’s one chapter that does not begin that way, and that’s surah-ul taubah. It includes our war verse, and that is the war verse that is used to sanction the murder of Christians by the Islamic State today. It’s the verse that’s used to sanction the acquisition of Yazidi women to be sex slaves.
And so this pursuit of social justice and progressive values to me should not have blinders about the challenges inside of our tradition on very serious issues of Islamic law that are being practiced today, and just because it’s not in our personal experience as the congressman talked about, it is in the experience of Muslims from Pakistan to Iraq to my hometown of Morgantown, West Virginia, where Muslim women don’t get equal rights in practice. The theory is very important and interesting, but the practice is what I believe liberals and progressives should have their eyes wide open about. And we should not at all have a limit on our experience defining the entire reality.
KE: You said we could disagree?
AN: I think I just did . . .
MT: Go ahead.
KE: Let me just say this: If you’re going to judge a religion by how some people practice it, then we shouldn’t have any, because I know of none, including Buddhism, where people don’t do things in the name of the religion that are not condoned or sanctioned by the religion. And where people can twist words and use them out of context. I mean, what you just said could well be true, but then it’s true for all, so don’t only identify Islam as the problem.
AN: But that’s the exact judgment you used about Christianity.
KE: Well, let me just say about Christianity, my mother’s a Christian, my brother’s a Christian, they’re in my own household that I grew up in. What I know about love and mercy, my mother taught me. So I’m not speaking against Christianity. So if that’s how you feel, who am I to judge, that’s fine, I’m simply saying that it’s true for all or it’s true for none. To select Islam out as a special sort of—
AN: Who did that?
KE: You did.
MT: Okay, let’s go around the room and then come back to this.
Ani Zonneveld: I’m Ani Zonneveld. I’m the founder and president of Muslims for Progressive Values, and one thing that we do is to reinterpret the sacred texts, so the one thing that has moved me to do the work that I do was studying Islam for myself after 9/11 and discovering that it’s really rooted in social justice and egalitarianism. I think the first thing that really opened my eyes to an Islam that can be progressive and twenty-first-century is the fact that the first converts to Islam were women, were slaves, and were the downtrodden. It wasn’t the powerful tribes, the Quraish, for example. And that is the indicator from which I extrapolate my understanding of the Quran, the social justice aspect.
And there are verses in the Quran like the one Asra pointed out; however, the problem is that it’s a bastardization of sacred texts. It’s the taking it out of context and using it to enslave Yazidis and so forth. So the work that we do is really countering the radical interpretation of Islam, the conservative interpretation of Islam, and also Islamophobia, which borrows from the radical interpretation and promotes it as truth. Essentially they do each other’s work. So I think we sit right in the middle when we are arguing against much of the theology that’s taught in school—that you eat pork and you go to hell, or that Islam is the best of the three Abrahamic faiths. And if you instill this ideology of supremacy, then we have a problem of Islamic supremacy. And I saw that in the Islamic school of my daughter, and I yanked her out.
I do believe that the problem with the Muslim world right now is the shortcomings of the religious scholars, the imams, not teaching the truth about Islam. Why were we not taught, for example, that the first female imam was appointed by Prophet Mohammed? I learned that on my own. So there’s a lot of good stuff in Islam, but instead we were taught the misogynistic teachings. And that’s the problem that we have in the Muslim world right now.
MT: Hassan, your thoughts?
Hassan Abbas: Whether there is any contradiction in being a Muslim and being a liberal, I think there is not, specifically if you really look at the definitions. What is liberalism? In the Western historical context, it is primarily about liberty and equality. And in the Islam that I learned as a Muslim growing up in Pakistan, in my early years, these were the two ideas that my Islam was based on. In my home for instance, one of my parents was a Shia, one was a Sunni. And I don’t remember in Pakistan, despite all that is happening there today in terms of extremism, intolerance, bigotry, violence; or that I was asked “are you a Shia or a Sunni?” during the years that I was growing up and going to school, in the 1970s and 80s.
And both my parents taught me about religion. My mother was an artist and painter, my father was an academic. And they never imposed their religious views. My understanding of the religion, which is in the Quran 2:256, are these very famous words, which say quite simply: “There is no compulsion in religion.” There’s nothing in religion that is to be forced or imposed upon its adherents. So I was never taught to be a Shia or Sunni per se, and I learned from both traditions. I’m often asked now if I’m Sunni or Shia, which is unfortunate in recent years because of Syria and Iraq, and because of Iran. I’ll always say I’m a “Sushi.”
So that is one context. If there is a foundation of liberalism in Islam, it is that there is no compulsion, there is no imposition. The problem is those imams orkhateebs or religious scholars who somehow or other tragically have taken over the narrative of religion.
I will not deny that for a Westerner or a non-Muslim, if you present Islam today as a religion and they look at all such imams, many of them whom are mainstream, unfortunately, their Islam is very intolerant in a certain way that it is presented. Their discourse has nothing to do with the principles I just mentioned. And that is a tragedy, because of the degeneration of religious thought that has happened in Islam. And this is not a unique perspective, and this is not something that is being talked about only among the liberal Muslims.
I’ll give just one example of this point. It is by Dr. Mohammed Iqbal, a Pakistani scholar and poet with whom the idea of Pakistan was associated. A PhD from Germany. His famous six lectures, published as a book titled Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam, delivered originally in the English language in 1920s, is still one of the most popular books in Pakistan. He argued for reshaping Islamic philosophy through rational thinking and divorcing it from a conservative theological mindset. His central emphasis was on reviving the Islamic principle of ijtihad, meaning independent reasoning, implying that religious ideas must be based on rational foundations and progressive thinking.
Has Pakistan lived up to that idea? Absolutely not. And this brings me to my second point. Where Islam gets a little unfair treatment globally is where we always think of Muslim practices in a present international context and immediately see it as a reflection of all Islam. The fair treatment would be that religion is compared to religions. And practice of course, in a certain context, is seen as a product of politics and culture. The modern idea of a state as we see today—whether it is progressivism, liberalism, democracy—this is a post-World War II construct. Muslims who had a great legacy of empires, with great contributions to arts, sciences, civilization, I mean ask anyone who’s into hard sciences, even in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, in modern Western universities, the hard science subjects were taught with textbooks by Muslims. However, the Muslim world went through a sharp decline after their empires collapsed. So the Muslim challenge is to adjust to modernity. It’s a new world where power resides elsewhere but in some cases Muslim are stuck in a glorious past.
For Muslims, the modern world is an imposed reality. They are trying to figure out what it is. So that’s their tragedy. Some social practices, grievances, and social upheaval have led some Muslims in certain countries to behave in a certain radical fashion, which is very problematic. But that cannot always be seen directly as a reflection of Islam as a religion, which has a very rich history.
Ali Gharib: I’m wondering, after listening to all of you talk about how you came to the positions you did, where you see a more liberal version of Islam fitting into the global scheme of where the world’s Muslim communities are now. Do you feel like you’re in an extraordinary minority, or do you think that there’s actually a silent majority that would be with you guys?
AZ: We’re a grassroots organization, so we have members sprinkled all over the world. It started in Los Angeles, but we have offices in Malaysia, and affiliates in Bangladesh, the Netherlands, and we are opening up an office in Tunisia. So the liberalism is there. And the liberalism is there because it’s rooted in Islam, it’s rooted in the Quran. And so you can try to run away from it, but at the end of the day, if you challenge sacred text, and it doesn’t matter what Muslim I’m talking to . . . I’ll give you an example. I was having a private conversation with a very well-known imam here in the United States, and I said to him, “Look, say what you will against Da’esh, they’re a despicable bunch, but I have to respect their conviction: If you don’t agree with them, they’ll kill you.”
Which is more than I can say about American imams, their leadership in the United States. They say a lot of things in support of liberalism, in support of egalitarianism and social justice privately. But publicly that’s not what they preach in their sermons, right? So I’m not really sure what’s going to make them move to what I think is the right path, the true path of the Quran. Because it’s in black and white, like Hassan was saying. There’s no compulsion in faith. Verse 2:256. It’s there in black and white, so why are we not practicing it?
Why is it that Muslim women, who are very well-educated in the United States, if a Muslim woman wants to marry a non-Muslim man, he has to convert because Islam is the supreme religion? And this false interpretation that a Muslim woman cannot marry a non-Muslim man—that’s not what the Quran said. That is a tribal practice. So we keep going back to challenging Sharia law, because it’s Sharia law that has completely bastardized what the Quran actually says. So you can’t have Sharia law that is supposedly God’s law if it contradicts the Quran. When Sharia law says you can have child marriage—marry a child of nine years old to an old man like they did in Iraq, and some provinces in Pakistan it ranged to age 16—there’s this constant challenge of a girl’s age to marry. But yet in the Quran, marriage is between two consenting adults. When you go back to the basics, it’s easy to challenge. So what we’re doing, we’re creating a Sharia law for the twenty-first century.
That’s what we have to do for the Muslim world. And those people are more than eager to change to adapt to the twenty-first century. Because you know, the folks in the Muslim world, they’re the ones who are suffering, they’re the ones who have children killed. I mean look at the Muslim world, it’s a disaster. So they’re the first ones to vehemently agree with our position here in the United States as far as progressive Islam goes.
HA: It reminds me of something. This whole debate, about whether we stand in the majority or minority—and debates among Islamic scholars on issues of rationality, imposition, bigotry, and what is Sharia law—these have been very old, right from the word “go.” Right from the beginning of Islam. Who is a Muslim or not? It has become more of an exercise in futility lately, because the way Sharia law has developed is a facade, it is very, very problematic.
As a proud Muslim, as someone who considers himself sometimes stuck in between liberalism and conservatism, I find that the way Sharia law has developed in the modern setting is quite problematic. Why is that so? One, because of this basic misconception that Sharia law is equal to the Quran orhadith, meaning sayings of the Prophet. No, Sharia law is not divine. It has been the product of various Muslim traditions, in various Muslim contexts, in which it was prescribed by human beings for different people in different locations at different times.
The tragedy has been that in the broad Muslim world, more than 600 or 700 years ago, a group of Muslim scholars who were very mainstream said: We have answered every major question of religion and law, and we have dealt with all the major issues, so the doors of ijtihad—a concept I mentioned earlier meaning rational thinking—are closed. They argued that that there is no further need for interpretation and understanding, because we have answered all the major questions. That led to some degeneration of thought among Muslim scholars.
But this tradition of scholarship and debate has been a very solid one. And that’s why I think liberalism and those who believe in progressive ideals and continuously interpreting and reinterpreting religious texts—that is still very vibrant. But why we confuse some of these issues is, I would say, look at these issues differently. The idea of Islamic scholarship. What are Islamic mainstream scholars doing? A lot of progressive thinking and discussion and debate is happening. That’s one bracket.
Second is, what some of the Muslim states are doing, they’re playing with Islam for political ends. And there, the state of Muslim scholarship is very weak and tribal.
Then there’s a third category: What is happening in Muslim society, particularly in the West. I’ll quote here a Muslim-American scholar on the experience of Islam and Muslims in America, because that’s where we can place ourselves. There’s a scholar in California, Khaled Abou El Fadl. He’s a professor at UCLA, and he wrote a phenomenal book on authoritarianism. And he said one issue Muslims in the West are facing is a gap of indigenous Muslim scholarship in America, because, relatively speaking, Islam is a new religion, both historically and in America. They had to import it, and I see this every other day in Muslim mosques.
I’ve lived in three states: in Boston, Massachusetts, and in New York, and in Virginia for the last 15 years. And I’ve seen that we import scholars during the religious days. Those scholars who come might be very well-meaning, but they come from a different context, they speak a different language. The American scholarship on Islam is still budding. Now, there are scholars: Hamza Yusuf, Professor Hossein Nasr based in Washington D.C., who I think is one of the preeminent scholars of Islam globally. But their scholarship is quite new. So there is that gap in American scholarship on Islam which is there. But we must try to understand where we stand. I would like to say that among the Muslim scholars that I’m seeing, I might be in a majority.
AG: Among American Muslims?
HA: Yes, but if I’m in a Muslim context in Pakistan, I’m a minority.
AN: The question that we’re discussing is whether these liberal values we embrace . . . how prevalent they are around the world. And I would argue that the largest obstacle we have is that in the 47 Muslim-majority countries that we have in the world, they very much practice an Islam that does not embody these liberal values. And so in any one of those countries, as Ani pointed out, if you, a Muslim woman, want to marry a man outside the faith, you are not going to get an official, sanctioned Muslim marriage. You may not even be able to get a civil marriage. Because the only way to have your marriage recognized is for it to be religious.
AZ: Unless you’re in Tunisia.
AN: Tunisia’s a perfect example of the battle that exists today between those who want to reverse those kinds of laws. So if you want to adopt a child, there are obstacles. If you want to be able to exercise your right to go to your father’s funeral, perhaps at a cemetery, there will be a mullah standing guard oftentimes. Even in Pennsylvania or in California.
And so the challenge for me is that I don’t believe that much of our Muslim world practices these liberal values. And contrary to this thesis that there is this separate Islam from what we practice, I believe that we are Islam in the way that we practice it in the world. And that’s very much the challenge that we have. So yes, the history that I harken back to is this history that Dr. Abbas is talking about, the Mutazalites, who lived in Baghdad and were the critical thinkers. But unfortunately their principle of ijtihad and critical thinking was shut down. Literally shut down—the gates of ijtihad were closed.
We are living testimony to people who practice ijtihad. But what happens in our Muslim communities? Ani faces death threats when she goes to Malaysia, I face harassment on Twitter and all these other places from my coreligionists, when I go to Penn State, University of Washington, Rutgers University. I can’t even imagine some of the stuff you [points to Abbas] would face going back to Pakistan and challenging the militancy and extremism that’s there. So this is as much a reality to me as these ideals that we seek and that we pursue, that keep us within the faith.
And to me the great challenge to liberals and people who are going to be hearing our message is: What are your values? Are they values of women’s rights, human rights, non-violence, secular governance? This is such a huge and key value. Do you, as a liberal, believe in secular governance? If you do, then that means that you cannot support most of these Muslim majority countries that, if they’re not defined by an Islamist or political Islam that has a union of mosque and state, they have such powerful energies that change the laws like in Pakistan. And after all these years of activism, my real belief is that it’s this idea, this very core principle of secular governance, that we have to really advocate for in many of these Muslim countries and in our Muslim communities also, so that we can actually pursue the kind of equal rights that we think liberal values embody.
KE: Well I mean, I’m not a scholar, like some of my colleagues here. What I can tell you is in the last election, I won with 72 percent of the vote and all the Muslims voted for me. They know that I stand for LGBT rights, women’s rights, racial justice, fair economics, a $15 minimum wage, the right to unionize, the right to bargain collectively. They know all that, they see me doing that. I do it on Twitter. I don’t hide. And so I don’t really have this sharp intellectual thing to say about it, but I can tell you that as a pragmatic politician who has to get outcomes that I have a lot of support from the Muslim community. Now they do stop me on certain issues and say “Why are you taking this position on this?”
MT: Can you tell us what issues?
KE: It usually involves something about sexuality—LGBT rights or women’s rights. I just tell people that I have to fight for the rights of all Americans. And they usually nod and say, “Okay.”
I can tell you this: Nowadays we have a Muslim school board member, we have one on the Columbia Heights, Minnesota city council, and we have two contending for the state legislature, one male one female. And I don’t know how that’s going to come out, but they’re campaigning hard and aggressively against each other. So when I encounter people across the country, people say different kinds of things, but in terms of what they do, I’m quite confident that they want a voice in their government. They don’t want a government where someone is dictating to them what’s going to happen to them, without any say-so for them. They want a fair economy. A lot of Muslims are members of SEIU, a labor union. Or the Building Trades. As a matter of fact, you go into the training centers of the Building Trades, all the old guys are all white guys. Everybody else? Young Somalis, or Pakistanis, a lot of women, hijabs at those welding machines, you see them. That’s the lived reality for me.
MT: I want to ask you about the Kamel Daoud op-ed in The New York Timesabout sex in the Muslim world. He was furiously criticized for it, and the affair raises the broader and very difficult questions when criticism of Islam by Muslims and by others is necessary and appropriate, and under what conditions such criticism crosses over into being racist or something more sinister, and when does criticism of the criticism act as a shield, when people charge racism when somebody is saying something that actually needs to be said?
AZ: There is an issue about sexuality in Islam. I’ve had experiences with that here in the United States as a Muslim woman. I am also a musician. When I released an Islamic pop CD, the response was, “We love your music, we listen to it all the time in the office, but we can’t sell it, because your female voice isaurat,” which means it has to be clothed. So no longer is it just the women’s body, skin, and hair, but also her voice that has to be covered, censored. This is obviously not our Islamic heritage. We’ve had phenomenal teachers, musicians—
AZ: The whole gamut. And yet in the twenty-first century, the sexuality of the woman’s body is at epic levels. We have to cover lest we provoke sexual desires from men, and this mindset extends itself to why some Muslim men and women don’t shake hands with the opposite sex. Growing up, it wasn’t a trend for Muslim women to cover their hair; nowadays, not covering your hair is equated to being a piece of candy without its wrapper, and to being loose. There’s a contrast to this, which is that in the West, you have the uber-sexualization of the women’s body to sell a product. On the flip side, the Muslim sexualization of the woman’s body is to cover it up. So it’s the same issue. I think what he wrote is valid. He’s from that world, from that culture, he has every right to self-criticism. As a Muslim woman, I have a right to be critical of my faith and how it’s being practiced. I actually don’t understand why the liberal left in this particular case criticized him in the way that they did. I don’t think they have a place to criticize him. Is it because it’s being raised in Western media? This is a conversation we have in the Muslim world, so why is it a problem?
AN: For me, my real dramatic wakeup call was after the Charlie Hebdo assassinations, when the words of the assassins were “we are protecting the honor of the prophet Mohammed.” I’ve now written about this dynamic in our Muslim community, which has existed in other religious communities also, where people want to protect the honor of Islam, of the community; and the strongest charge is to call somebody an Islamophobe or a racist or a bigot. As soon as I was the target of those kinds of attacks to try to silence me, I realized this is a strategy. This is a strategy to try to intimidate people into silence. And Kamel Daoud’s argument was a very legitimate one. It’s a conversation we have to have about how the intimacy in our lives impacts our conduct outside in the public sphere.
It is a betrayal of liberalism and liberal values that the liberal left is complicit with this silencing of Muslim voices that argue for self-criticism, liberal values, progressive ideals, this is a betrayal of liberalism and of liberal values. To me, time will reveal that liberals were on the wrong side of history on this point. This is a moment to wake up and offer honest conversation as a remedy to so many of the social ills that challenge liberal values.
KE: When I read that article, what struck me is that it may well be true that the region of the world he’s talking about has to come to better grips with human sexuality, embrace gender equality more. That could all well be true. But I just kept thinking, huge parts of this world where Muslims don’t predominate have problems with sexuality. Like the United States for example. I mean it’s just now that this country is letting grown people who want to get married to each other make that choice, I mean that’s recent. It was 1920 before women could vote in this country constitutionally. Some did but some couldn’t.
I’m not trying to get the Muslim world off the hook, but it does rub me wrong that we want to specialize and say the problems of sexuality and accepting human sexuality and all of its diversity is a Muslim problem. I don’t believe that’s right. I like what Ani said, that in one place they want to cover a woman up, the other they want to display them to sell stuff. Both I think are exploitive. And I can tell you, in the context of my district, and the people who I serve, we get cases of sexual harassment, abuse, all the time. No Muslims are within miles of the conversation.
It’s a world problem. I definitely think it’s true that it’s offensive when you walk into a mosque and there’s no sisters in that room. That they can’t preach, they can’t teach, they can’t share what they know, I think that’s absurd. But I think it needs to be confronted like I would anywhere else, and not fetishized within the Muslim community as a special problem.
HA: I think Kamel has every right to criticize, and I’ll fight to the death for his right to say what he wants to say. But I have serious issues with his framing. The problem is that the way it’s projected and framed, at times it feeds stereotyping. Muslims have been a punching bag for quite awhile, in a modern sense. Part of that is based on ignorance, part of that is based on the lens that we use. Because you start framing and pushing a culture in a negative sense, add religion to it, add culture to it, add tribalism to it, and in the end it seems that demeaning a whole society becomes such a convenient thing. So that’s why framing it like that is problematic to me. Yes that issue might be very natural, I think I might agree on most of the points he’s making, but whether those are the central features of those societies? I disagree. Framing it like that, in a U.S. media context, becomes very problematic and counterproductive to me.
AZ: Can I add something? A lot of the things that we’ve discussed have been new issues in the Muslim world. I’m 53 years old, but I don’t remember women being so severely segregated, so sexualized, prior to 25 years ago. This is a new phenomenon. It has to do with this new interpretation of Islam that has taken over the Muslim world and redefined what Islam is. Muslims have always been oppressed, always been poor, and yet I remember when I’ve sat with poor Arabs and they’ve offered me their one loaf of bread, and that’s all they had. They were not violent—they were poor and they were oppressed. What’s the difference now?
AN: I would just add that I don’t believe it either fetishizes or demonizes a community to have an honest conversation about serious problems. Because if we say that people are going to come to mass conclusions, collectivist ideas about the community, then you’re basically throwing those who are the victims and the targets of the social injustice that we care about under the bus. Then you’re saying that all the abuses that happen because of these very serious issues are ones that we’re not going to be able to discuss. I think everybody knows that there are global problems in all of this. It’s our perception of being picked on or being stereotyped that prevents the removal of these serious issues.
AG: I was wondering what your sense is of what I think is a failing of the liberal, lower-case-d democratic political system that we have a situation where one of our two major parties is ending up with two candidates who are extraordinary bigots against American Muslims. Another question is whether there is a special responsibility for liberal Muslims to speak on behalf of their conservative coreligionists.
KE: How did we end up with a situation where the Republican Party has basically decided that Muslim-bashing is going to help them win elections? That’s the way I understand your question. Let me just say, Herman Cain was doing it four years ago. They put it in their platform. I know of no Muslims trying to establish a caliphate or Sharia law in the United States. And yet they’ve tried to pass laws trying to ban it in various states. How did this come to be? Well, it’s a multi-pronged thing, but there are three strains.
One, these people hate a lot of people, not just Muslims. Trump’s opening salvo was Mexicans are carrying drugs, and they’re rapists; and then he said “maybe some of them are good people,” which I thought was… interesting. So they don’t like a lot of people; they use racial dog whistles, this is today’s Willie Horton. There it is. Demonization, they’re trying to persuade white working class people, I believe, you know we’re not going to raise your wages, we don’t care about your pension, we don’t care about your kids going to college, we’re not going to do anything for you. But here’s what we’re going to do for you: We’re going to assure you that you’re better than them. And they’ve been doing this forever, George Wallace did it, they’ve always done it. It’s the psychic wage they pay the white working class; giving them the sense they’re better than others. So I think that’s one thing.
The other thing that’s going on, and I don’t think this can be discounted: Pam Geller, Robert Spencer, all the rest, they have well-endowed foundations putting lots of money into fueling anti-Muslim bias. All you have to do is read “Fear, Inc.” and other publications. “Fear, Inc.” was put out by the Center for American Progress, cataloging this whole phenomena.
So what’s happened? The regular, good old American xenophobia and bigotry has pulled up to include some new people: Muslims. And this group that’s trying to suppress an American Muslim political voice has been very active. Those two things have worked together. So Ted Cruz has Frank Gaffney as a top aide. Now what do you think that’s going to yield? So that’s where we are. And I think the answer is clear.
You see Muslims all over this country, even today, last night, people coming on the Hill, talking about issues, talking about problems that they want policymakers to address, this is how this problem is going to be solved: activism and inclusion. Let me wrap up with one quick story.
After Ferguson, you heard some Muslims be in solidarity with African Americans, while some were silent. Every conversation I was in, there was some sympathy for the concerns that I was raising, and I heard that in some places there wasn’t that much. Anyway, I go to Ferguson to raise voter turnout, because when Mike Brown was killed, the election before that only 12 percent of people voted at all. Twelve percent. So we go in there to try to raise voter turnout, and I go into a black Christian church. And in that black Christian church, I find Salam Clinic, where you’ve got three Pakistani doctors looking after patients. Almost all of whom were African American, a few of them were Latino, a few of them were white. None of whom were Muslim, that I saw. So the long and the short is, the antidote for this anti-Muslim bigotry that is undoubtedly to the political advantage of some people is engagement, service to the community; and then some capacity to talk about what they’re doing, because people just don’t know. I mean, if I had a dollar for every time somebody said “Why don’t Muslims speak out?” I’d be a rich man by now.
AN: One point I want to make is that I think liberal Democrats have failed in their responsibility. The Center for American Progress promoted this report about Islamophobia funded by a George Soros foundation. What that report and this entire industry of arguing that Muslims are under attack has done is given cover to the dynamic in our community that does not own up to the problems of extremism and ideology. We’re constantly playing the victim. We’re constantly playing the card that we’re under attack.
Ultimately, I believe we have a responsibility to own up to the problem. What we had instead was years of denial and deflection. The denial and deflection is what led to the demonization. As long as you have a community that says “We don’t have a problem, that’s not Islam, Islam is a religion of peace,” you are sending a message that we don’t take responsibility for the practices of others that are so damaging. I have an anecdote, which happened in Springfield, Virginia. I sat in a Comfort Inn where Hizb ut-Tahrir members—an organization of extremists who call themselves nonviolent—stood with the flag of their Islamic state vision behind them arguing that the United States is the American Raj, like the British Raj. They are young men living here in Northern Virginia who do want to see the caliphate. That’s a very serious problem that we’ve got. As long as we express the idea that it doesn’t exist in this country or in our communities then we have a problem.
I do not believe that the Democratic leadership, including the Obama Administration, has helped the cause in not acknowledging the Islam in Islamic State. We have been not only walking on eggshells; we’ve been walking on glass avoiding this conversation.
And the responsibility that we have to conservative Muslims is to move them along, I believe, on a progressive path. Representative Ellison said that because of the nature of his political role, his Muslim constituents are at least putting blinders on related to his position on gay rights and women’s rights, they’re not fighting him on it. In that same way, liberals in America challenge American conservatives. They don’t give them a pass.
This entire conversation has been anchored to this idea of conservative hatred and the liberal response to it. Liberal Muslims shouldn’t give the bigotry and sexism and intolerance of conservative Muslims a pass. We should of course always advocate for people’s intrinsic right to humanity, self-respect, and dignity. There should be no compromise there. But I don’t think there should be any expectation that liberal Muslims should be blind to the dangerous values of conservatives Muslims; it’s an expectation that liberal Americans outside of the Muslim community reject for themselves. They are opposing conservative values every single day in the op-ed pages, on votes, and that to me is my duty, my farzas a Muslim, to do that, and to fight for progressive values.
HA: Absolutely, there’s no denying the fact that there is a serious problem among Muslims in the West, also. And I’m ready to talk and give some space to the ideas of conservatives, but not those who are bigots and not those who have extremist ideas. And there are such people. However, the situation among Muslims in the United States is very different from what is the case in the European context. These are two different streams of people, hooked to different ideas. There’s a reason why there is this consistent flow of foreign fighters going from European countries to Iraq and Syria, and that’s not the case in the United States.
AG: Why do you think that is?
HA: Because any immigrant can become part of the American tradition and be an American and be proud of it, even despite the tragedy of 9/11 and some confusion, which was understandable, among Americans of how to see Islam and Muslims despite that. I have an example from when I started in Boston, where I was a student at that time. As a police officer, I had taken a leave to come here. I got the best opportunities after that, from Fletcher to Harvard to Columbia as a professor to the National Defense University to teach the American military. I got maybe a benefit, in some ways, and I received a lot of respect and opportunities as an American Muslim. And I see my identity as that. I have lived in England also. I cannot see that same experience in many of the countries, even though I have great respect for those countries. That’s one difference.
Second, Islam is far more rooted in American history. The idea of America, itself, is different than many of those nations. I want to add one thing to this whole debate about the bigotry that we see today. We must look at the root cause of those issues and how the idea of the war on terror has been framed. The way we’ve continued to have great relations with many authoritarian states, which as an American Muslim I’m really ashamed of, empowers those who are posing the most serious challenges to modernity in Islam. We don’t want to nudge them toward a representative system. We also shy away from taking responsibility for some of the biggest mess-ups we had in Afghanistan and Iraq in terms of nation-building and how much money was spent. So we couldn’t direct the blame on our own bureaucracy. We don’t want to criticize some of these authoritarian regimes. So it’s easy to say “Muslims are incapable of democracy” and at least for the politicians using that frame, it’s Muslims as the Other. It makes it easy to hate and defame. But there is a very progressive Muslim experience which is happening in this country, which is very different from anywhere else in the West, which has to be taken into consideration.
AZ: The one thing about the perception of what American Muslims are has to do with many years of how the media has portrayed Muslims in America. As a progressive Muslim, I don’t wear a hijab, and I’ve seen several times where I’ve been interviewed by NPR and on public TV for example, at the end of the day my contribution to a particular story was cut out because I didn’t fit the typical image of what a Muslim is, or fit the sound of what a typical Muslim is. So when you have many years of this, there’s a very narrow definition of what a Muslim should look and sound like, right? This is equivalent to, let’s say, an orthodox Jew as the representation of what American Jews look like. And that’s a complete misrepresentation. This is a misperception most Americans have of what Muslims look like.
So the prejudice that we see toward Muslims that have been highlighted by Donald Trump and by Ted Cruz is nothing new. Forty-seven percent of Americans believe Muslims should wear a badge. That’s in a statistic that was quoted a few years ago. Forty-seven percent, that’s unbelievable. So they’re tapping into the prejudice that’s there already.
I always defend everyone’s rights, including a hijabi who’s being spat on. I defend everyone’s rights. That’s just basic American liberal values. But to say to me that should I be sticking up for a conservative Muslim? It’s a bit offensive to me, because why should I stick up for a set of values that use a space of freedom of religion to discriminate against others? Let’s take LGBT rights. Forty-two percent of American Muslims either strongly agree or agree with marriage equality. Where are the religious leaders on this? Not a single religious leader is on board. Not even to say let’s not demonize homosexuality in our sermons anymore. No one has said that. So I cannot defend that particular value, that’s not my liberal value. And I do it in the context of sacred texts of Islam.
In closing, here’s my challenge to liberal Americans: be intolerant of intolerance and discrimination, no matter who’s dishing out the discrimination. Just as you are appalled at the political right, as a liberal Muslim I am just as appalled with my conservative and radical coreligionists. If you want a peaceful and just world, do your homework and support those liberal Muslim voices.
AN: American liberal values are in sync with the interpretation of Islam that promotes social justice, economic equity, gender equality and peace, and I would ask American liberals to recognize and support the struggle by progressive Muslims to challenge interpretations of Islam that promote political Islam, sexism, and intolerance. I ask liberals to stand up with liberal Muslims for the values dear to their hearts, rather than being silent for fear of offending a minority group. We all have a stake in supporting progressive Muslim values. Please stand with us with moral courage.
KE: This just goes to show that there is a diversity of opinions on being a Muslim in today’s world, and there should be more discussions.
HA: Muslims are struggling with modernity without a doubt, but there have been significant advances ranging from Tunisian democracy to the 2004 Amman message, where leading Muslim jurists got together calling for tolerance and harmony among various Muslim sects, especially Sunni and Shia. I am optimistic about the future.
MT: We’re out of time. Thank you all.
Responses to Orlando Tragedy
Hassan Abbas: It aches my heart to comment on the Orlando tragedy. I am relieved to see that almost all major American Islamic organizations including both Sunni and Shia have condemned the despicable act. A mainstream Islamic activist group even urged Muslims to donate blood for the injured victims. We are all in this together. Terror in Orlando invites us also to think more deeply about identity and integration challenges; gun control and the dynamics of the ISIS worldview. It’s high time to join hands to serve humanity, promote inter-religious harmony, and develop a strong counter-narrative to bigotry in all of its manifestations. That’s the most effective way to nourish the American spirit in my view.
Keith Ellison (from his office’s official statement): No religion justifies such a senseless act of terror. All decent people must condemn this hateful act that claimed the lives of 50 people and injured 53 more. Sadly, Orlando has now joined Aurora, Charleston, Newtown, Oak Creek, and many other communities rocked by gun violence. This is yet another reminder that Congress must pass meaningful, common-sense gun reforms that include a ban on assault weapons, which have no place in civilian hands. Members of Congress must stand up to the NRA.
I am grieving with the LGBT community. The community has been a target for hate for decades, but has seen meaningful advances in the past few years. That progress could not be more evident than seeing millions of Americans, gay and straight alike, celebrate LGBT Pride this weekend. This tragedy will not suppress the love and compassion that the LGBT community is centered on. Going forward, we must continue to stand against all hate crimes. No one deserves to be harmed because of their race, gender, religion, or sexual orientation.
Asra Q. Nomani: The horrific murders of revelers at Pulse take me back to a moment when I was in a conference room at a Holiday Inn in Atlanta for an annual meeting of Al-Fatiha, a gay Muslim organization. A Muslim woman from the kitchen staff stormed into the room, shouting, “You’re all going to burn in hell!” The metaphorical scarlet letter in Islam is “Z,” for zina, or illegal sex, from premarital sex to homosexuality. The attitude of shame and punishment, expressed by the kitchen staff member in Atlanta and the murderer in Orlando, trickles down to ordinary Muslims. It’s pushed and promoted by governments, including Iran, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia, which promote their version of political Islam, or Islamism, with a culture of punishment for zina even among consensual adults. I implore liberals in the West to join liberal Muslims in challenging the interpretations of Islam that belie progressive values, from punishment for consensual zina to forcing women into the basements of mosques. In the Muslim Reform Movement, we stand for human rights. My hope is liberals will stand with us for humanity.
Ani Zonneveld (from the statement issued by her organization): For 10 years, Muslims for Progressive Values has promoted human solidarity among all people regardless of faith, gender, orientation, and ethnicity. For most of that time we have been a lone voice supporting LGBTQI rights while most American Muslim organizations continue to refuse to stand by LGBTQI communities for various illegitimate reasons. While we understand that every community struggles with homophobia, today it is abundantly clear why the American Muslim community needs to address homophobia in our own community and institutions. We must challenge divisive interpretations of Islam that may encourage those like the gunman in Orlando.
MPV calls on imams and mosque leadership across the country to address the mass shooting in Orlando at their upcoming Friday sermon during this holy month of Ramadan. Ramadan is a time of love and empathy and we must remind our congregants that Islam and our Prophet never condoned hate. There is not a single example from the life of our beloved Prophet where a man or women was punished, condemned or even marginalized because of their sexual orientation or gender orientation. Hate rooted in sexual orientation has no basis in Islamic or prophetic traditions and therefore our institutions must stand firmly against all hateful interpretations of our faith and all faiths.