Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Interview with Ash-Sharq Al-Awsat

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Islam in America and the Clash of Exceptionalisms

This is the summary of a khutba (sermon) that I gave at ISGH Main Center on May 8, 2009. A number of people asked me to write it down, so here is a brief summary.

One of the traditional verses to start a sermon is [59:18]:
The traditional translation is: "O ye who believe! Fear Allah, and let every soul look to what (provision) he has sent forth for the morrow. Yea, fear Allah: for Allah is well-acquainted with (all) that ye do." I would not limit the collective order اتَّقُوا, which is repeated twice in the plural, I would not limit it to "fear", because the notion of taqwa encompasses God-consciousness, God-wariness, and other concepts besides fear.

Our focus for today is on the following: the verse does not say "let every soul" or "let each soul" (و لتنظر كل نفس) but rather "let a soul" (و لتنظر نفس), focusing on the community of the faithful (addressed: يَا أَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا) as a single organism. In other words, although we are accountable individually, we are also accountable for the future (مَا قَدَّمَتْ لِغَدٍ) that the community as a single organism forges for itself.

This notion of humanity as a single organism is also prevalent in the Qur'an. Verses [4:1], [6:98], [7:189], and [39:6] all proclaim that all mankind were created from a single soul, e.g. [4:1], another traditional introductory verse for sermons, states:
"O mankind, be wary of your Lord who created you from a single soul and created its spouse therefrom, and put forth from the pair many men and women, so be wary of God whom you ask for favors and be wary of your ties of kinship, verily God is ever watchful over you."

Therefore, depending on the context, one may think of all mankind as a single organism (created from a single soul), think of any given community as a single organism, and so on. Within the context of the community of faith, the Prophet (p) said (as narrated in Muslim): 
مثل المؤمنين في توادهم وتراحمهم وتعاطفهم مثل الجسد إذا ‏ ‏اشتكى ‏ ‏منه عضو تداعى له سائر الجسد بالسهر والحمى 
"The example of the faithful in their mutual empathy, mercy, and sympathy, is like the [single] body, when one organ complains [from injury] the rest of the organs empathize through sleeplessness and fever."

Let's take this metaphor of the body to address the recent affair of Houstonian Zubair Bouchikhi. He has been recently released on bond, but for many months, his case of incarceration was discussed in our mosques and gatherings. It is normal to feel and share the pain that he and his family have suffered, just as the Prophetic Saying suggests parts of the body should respond to one another with empathy. 

Taking the metaphor of the single body to the next level, let us ask: how did the rest of the body (our community) lead this part of the community (Zubair) to incarceration in the first place? It is easy to blame overzealous informants, whose numbers in our mosques have grown exponentially in recent years as part of this lucrative growth industry of xenophobia toward Islam and Muslims. We must also blame ourselves, however, for not understanding our home (America) and the difficult transformations that it has been undergoing in recent decades.

I touched some raw nerves a few years ago when I discussed this very issue. The anger that some of you felt at that time was a natural coping mechanism to being exposed to the fact that our story as Muslims in America (which we are authoring as we play the lead roles) is different from the story that many of us think that we're living. It is safer for me to do what I have done since then, which is to focus on mainstream Islamic teaching on the importance of perseverance, God-wariness, thankfulness for blessings, etc., which would not push anyone in the congregation out of their comfort zone, and you would all leave happy. 

However, this topic of American Islam is too important to leave unspoken. If there is to be an Islam in America 100 years from now, it must be an American Islam that fits comfortably in the fabric of American society. This requires abandoning the rhetoric that there is only one Islam, which is patently false, since Islam in Malaysia is different from Islam in Indonesia, Islam in Pakistan, in Saudi Arabia, in Egypt, etc. Each community evolved within its own historical and cultural context, and although they share some common factors, they are distinctly different. I will try to push you a bit out of your comfort zone of the Orthodoxy narrative, which we feel compelled to profess on the pulpit, in order to start the community thinking about those problems. I hope not to push you too far out of your comfort zone at this time.

First, we must understand our place in American history. As Abraham Lincoln pointed out sarcastically in his debate with Stephen Douglas in 1858, the founding fathers meant that "all [white Protestant] men were created equal." This was, and continues to be, an integral part of American exceptionalism. Of course, this exceptionalism has been fading over time: We elected a Catholic President in 1960 and a black President in 2008.

It is interesting that this transformation (the fading of American white Protestant exceptionalism), which accelerated with the civil rights movements, coincided in 1965 with removal of visa quotas and the ensuing latest (and perhaps final) wave of Muslim immigrants. Earlier waves (Muslim Moorish sailors on the Columbus crew, West-African slaves, 1920s auto workers brought from Lebanon and Palestine to work in Ford factories, etc.) were different. Those of us who came in the 1960s onwards were graduate students and professionals, who built Muslim Student Associations, Islamic organizations, mosques, etc. 

Because American exceptionalism was beginning to fade when we arrived, we did not feel compelled, as Jewish immigrants felt in the 19th Century, to create a reform movement that would integrate our Islam with the dominant Protestant Christianity that defined America in her earlier phases. We were given space to practice our religion as we had in our native countries, and we were even given space to profess the Orthodoxy of Islamic exceptionalism, which sustained some of the more myopic among us into thinking that Islam can survive in America without becoming an "American Islam."

The mass murders of September 11, 2001 may have been a catalytic transformative event, by bringing more law enforcement and intelligence informants into our mosques, but our problems - and the problem of Zubair - cannot be attributed to 9/11. After all, the mass murderers of 9/11 came from somewhere else, they were not home grown. European experiences suggested that home grown problems should also be a concern, but I would suggest that Zubair's problem has a different origin.

Zubair's problem was the following: Most of us do not live the Orthodoxy, nor do we profess it. We all have family members who are the equivalent of Jewish reformed, taking the occasional drink, maybe praying only on festivals and other occasions, etc. Most of us in the mosque are probably conservative: making all prayers, fasting, etc., but not adhering totally to the Orthodoxy as professed, say, in Saudi Arabia, and generally doubtful of the Islamist myth of the "ideal Islamic society". Of course, we also have our Orthodox, who do not wish to mix with the other sex or with other faiths, but they are a tiny minority, mostly composed of non-violent puritans (ultra Orthodox in the Jewish taxonomy). 

However, most of the conservative who come to the mosque regularly want the comfort of hearing the Orthodoxy professed from the pulpit. They lionized those who professed that Orthodoxy, albeit alien to their daily lives both temporally and spatially: The Orthodoxy does not represent who we are, and it does not even represent who the Saudis are -- it belongs to a mythical place in time and space. It is accommodated in our native societies as harmless narrative, but it scared the informants who are increasingly frequenting our mosques and who were not familiar with that narrative. They did not think that this rhetoric is harmless (and maybe for good reason, given the European and more recent American experiences of home-grown cells). They found it quite alarming. The parts of our community that lionized the profession of the Islamist exceptionalist Orthodoxy by Zubair and others is primarily responsible for his predicament.

When America listened and heard our profession of the Orthodoxy of Islamic exceptionalism, this awakened the worst and ugliest of America, the part that America had worked hard for two centuries to overcome: Islamic exceptionalism clashed with and awakened American exceptionalism. America has grown since the 1960s to accept diversity, until part of this diverse mosaic began to profess its own (transnational) exceptionalism, and this made it more difficult to envision Muslim Americans as an acceptable part of the American mosaic.

I promised not to push you any further away from the comfort zone of listening to the familiar Orthodoxy: familiar because we've heard it professed from our pulpits for decades, albeit alien to who we really are. Therefore, I will stop here. However, I beg you, for the sake of my grandchildren and yours, who are and will be fully American and Muslim. They are not only Muslim Americans, but also American Muslims, in the sense that they are culturally and politically different from Muslims native or immigrant to other parts of the world. Let's drop the anachronistic and alien Orthodox rhetoric, and replace it with a narrative that is consistent with who we are as American Muslims. This is the only way to have an Islam in America two generations from now: It has to become (institutionally) an American Islam that defies Islamic exceptionalism even as it defies American exceptionalism.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Parable of the Growth Tragedy

Everyone, from IMF officials to G20 leaders to the rest of the world, are obsessed with restarting economic growth: It is the only way out of poverty, we are told. It is the only way that we can be happy, they imply.

[Postscript: thanks to Michael Gassner for pointing me to the original reference for this story, authored by Heinrich Böll in 1963.]

This reminded me of a story that my professor in economic development told us nearly 30 years ago (I think that it was Galal Amin, but I am not sure; it does sound like him, though). The story goes as follows (with some license due to memory deficiencies and the desire to express some thoughts):
A man lived alone on his island. Every morning, he went out of his hut, jumped into the water, caught two fish, and then sat on the shore cooking and then eating them.
An entrepreneur watched the man for a while. Then, he approached the man, and said: "why don't you give me one of your two fish." The man said: "but I like to eat two fish, why should I give you one." The entrepreneur said: "if you give me one fish, I'll give you some of this green paper." The man said: "but I don't eat green paper, I only eat fish."
The entrepreneur said: "you don't understand: you work harder to catch 3 fish and give me one, then you sell me that extra fish and get some green paper, once you have accumulated enough green paper you can give it to me, and I will give you a fishing rod." The man said: "but I don't need a fishing rod, I can't eat it, and I can catch all the fish that I need without it."
The entrepreneur said: "but with a fishing rod, you can catch four fish with less work." The man said: "but I only eat two." The entrepreneur said: "So, you eat two and give me two, so that I can give you double the amount of green paper." The man said: "we've already been over this -- I don't eat green paper, I only eat fish." The entrepreneur said: "you're really slow -- when you've accumulated enough green paper, you can give them to me, and I'll give you a fishing boat."
The man said: "but I don't eat boats, I eat fish." The entrepreneur said: "with a boat, you will catch 8 fish a day with even less work." The main said: "but I only eat two." The entrepreneur said: "so, you eat two and give me six so that I may give you more green paper, and before you ask me any further, you will soon have enough green paper to have a fleet of fishing boats, and you can eat as much as you want without doing any work and just keep getting more green paper."
The man said: "maybe I am the slow one, but let me ask you this: would I not then be obsessed with useless green paper, lazy, fat, and possibly exploitative of my fishermen?" Then he added: "and with all those fishing boats, do I not run the risk of overfishing the sea to the point that we all starve in the long run?" In the meantime, "I am happy now, catching my two fish, staying fit, and having time for other things."
The entrepreneur left, thinking to himself: "I'll find somebody else who sees the brilliance of my idea, and you will someday work on one of his boats just to survive, as there will be no easy-to-catch fish readily available near the shore."