Monday, June 19, 2006

Muslim-Western Discourse: What to Think and What to Say

I received a number of private emails regarding the previous post on the NYT article. In particular, many fellow Muslims objected to my rhetorical question about whether one can be a Muslim and not hold a separatist-triumphalist viewpoint.

So, let me explain further: The answer to the rhetorical question is that -- of course -- the mainstream Muslim view is triumphalist, while Muslims vary in their views of optimal levels of separatism. In this regard, Mr. Shakir was merely representing the orthodox view, even though I am not sure that he is entitled to speak on behalf of all Muslims (i.e. we are not allowed to declare one who disagrees with this view as a non-Muslim if he or she professes to be one).

The real problem is the following: Western observers were scared of the likes of Mr. Shakir when they glorified violence and employed anti-American rhetoric. Now, he has professed that he denounces violence, but still wants to convert America into a Muslim country. For non-Muslims (and many Muslims, I might add) who are scared -- based on experiences that they had in countries that declare themselves "Islamic" -- of what his vision of a "Muslim country" might entail.

Let me explain: If the image in the minds of most non-Muslims and many Muslims is that of the Taliban's Afghanistan, the fact that Mr. Shakir now aims to reach his goal through legal means of persuasion appears even more threatening. Put yourself in the shoes of someone who fears that a "Muslim America" will replicate the historical worst case scenario perpetrated in the name of Islam. Fix the likelihoods of success of the Islamization program under a violent and a peaceful scenario. Now, if the advocates of an Islamic state try to reach it by illegal violent means, that becomes a security issue, which allows you to reduce the probability of success dramatically. If, on the other hand, they play by the rules of the game, then there may be very little that you can do legally (although, or course, discrimination would help reduce those chances of success -- and thus increased discrimination against Muslims is the most likely result that we are likely to observe in coming years).

One must respect Mr. Shakir's honesty in articulating what he and many or most Muslims believe (although the vision of what a Muslim country would look like varies tremendously within that group). However, you can see that for practical purposes, those who considered him intolerant before will be even more worried now. This is the fear that the west has had regarding Islamic movements in the middle east (FIS, MB, etc.). As Bernard Lewis coined the term, they fear that it will be "one man, one vote, once". Now, they fear, Western Muslims want to bring this threat right to their own homeland (witness the increased interest in U.S. media and politics in European Muslims, especially in France, where their proportions are relatively high).

So, if you believed that Mr. Shakir's approach was intolerant before, you would think that it is now better packaged, but even more dangerously intolerant.

This is a very difficult issue to face as Muslims. Too many Muslims repeat the rhetoric of Mr. Shakir in their homes, mosques, etc., but deny it when dealing with people of other faiths. Some even go as far as to claim that they respect other people's faiths and wish for them to respect ours (as evidenced by the now infamous Danish cartoons episode). Honestly, however, if you think that the other person's is wrong, and that he will only be saved if he converts to yours, you do not have as much respect for their faith as you profess, or as you hope that they will have for yours.

Of course, this is a problem with the doctrine of tolerance more generally: Can we tolerate those traditions that are intolerant. Likewise, a doctrine of mutal respect finds trouble in the face of separatist and triumphalist traditions, as ours admittedly is.

Yet, we ask others to be tolerant towards us, and to respect us, in ways that we may not be able to reciprocate.

It is up to our public leaders to formulate a coherent vision for dealing with this quandry. To the extent that I implicitly criticized Messrs. Yousuf, Shakir and Khaled, it was because they either avoid those thorny issues altogether, by focusing on positive aspects of relations with "the other", or they profess a view that is contradictory to the type of non-adversarial relationship that they wish to have with that other.

Of course, as I discussed in a previous posting ("asking difficult questions, seeking easy answers") there is evidence from the episode told about Amr Khaled's visit to Germany that his audience and devotees would abandon him if he were to address those issues. In the meantime, more intellectually oriented leaders like Tariq Ramadan -- who criticized Amr Khaled and other televangelists for avoiding those difficult issues -- have not to-date been able to provide solutions that capture the imagination of the masses of Western and Eastern Muslims.

In the areas of economics and finance, I think that I have found ample evidence in traditional scholarship to solve the problems of separatism and triumphalism (which others may or may not accept, but at least I think I see a way forward).

In this more important area, we are looking for better leadership, but I have not yet found it (I like Tariq Ramadan's approach a lot, but it is still work-in-progress, and I am not confident that the Muslim masses would accept his finished product).


Blogger Arrabi said...

You say:

If, on the other hand, they play by the rules of the game, then there may be very little that you can do legally (although, or course, discrimination would help reduce those chances of success -- and thus increased discrimination against Muslims is the most likely result that we are likely to observe in coming years).

I totally disagree. The democratic process is designed so that only widely-accepted ideas and solutions be implemented in the society.

Thus, by definition, a separatist islamic solution will NEVER go through the democratic process.

And, when muslims start "playing by the rules" as you say, this will drive others to enter the debate rooms with them and NOT simply increase discrementation.

The "one man, one vote, once" is a cheap intellectual justification for military dictatorship. It's ANTI-DEMOCRATIC by definition. One should never cancel elections "pre-emptively" based on rumors & speculations.


on another note: can you please define "triumphalist" and "separatist"? You use them in your article, and I don't think I'm clear on the meaning.


3:42 PM  
Blogger Arrabi said...

Sorry if my previous comment sound a bit aggressive. I saw that only after I've submitted it. I actually feel that I misunderstand you much more than I disagree with you. You do lay out a logical-argument, but you omit few steps because they are "obvious". I'm unclear on these.

It'll be great if you can take my previous comment to explain more on what you mean regarding the 2 terms you use to describe Shakir & Yusuf, and the solution you think you see for the problem (of muslims-others relations in the west).

3:48 PM  
Blogger Arrabi said...

Upon reading your other posts, few pages of your book (very interesting by the way), and same post again, I think I'm starting to understand what you mean.

by "separatist truimphalism" you mean:
1- Truimphalism: when a group feels it's "better" than other groups in an ideological sense - a step beyond right & wrong. For example, a philanthropist might feel he's doing the right thing, and he wishes others would donate also. A truimphalist philanthropist would feel he's "better morally" than those who do not donate.

2- Separatist: When a group has a strong identity coupled with strong concern only (or mostly) for those carrying this identity.

You say that Shakir & Yusuf represent an orthodox islamic view that is both separatist & truimphalist because:
1- They believe non-muslims won't be saved.
2- They want all others to become muslims.

I have to say that in case of Shakir's last few sentences, one might draw the opposite conclusion:

He wishes Islam for others, because Islam has helped him (not because Islam is the Truth) and he would like Islam to help others. Thus, his wishes can be interpreted as a "philanthropist" wish, and not necessarily a truimphalist.

In any case, a deeper interview is needed to know where Mr. Shakir falls.

The other point (presumption) you made, was that truimphalist groups cannot co-exist in an atmosphere of tolerance.

By "tolerance", if you mean, an ideal utopian tolerance, where each person is totally accepted, then, I agree, these groups cannot exist.

But in "reality" tolerance, where tolerance means "I respectfully disagree with you", I think it's possible.

Any religious group with a universal definition of God is, by definition, truimphalist (I would argue even Baha'is). Yet, through the ages, this did not bother many of these groups to live next to each other. Christians believing that Jews will go to Hell and Jews believing that Jesus was a fake prophet, these disagreements did not stop in the face of co-existence, and it doesn't now.

I don't believe we really have to work for a full true tolerance for us to co-exist confortably & peacefully.

The separatist part of your post is very interesting. And I don't think I can disagree that it exists in the muslim circles, and I can't disagree that many leaders do not truly address it. And, as you said, Tariq Ramadan is the one who is dealing with it most seriously.

thanks for the post,

5:34 PM  

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