Friday, May 25, 2012

Islam and Politics (large and small, near and far)

This is a draft of my khutba for today, after the semi-liturgical opening with a Qur'anic verse and a Hadith.

As Mahatma Gandhi stated correctly:
  • "In democracy no fact of life is untouched by politics."
  • "Those who say that religion has nothing to do with politics do not know what religion means."
I gave a khutba last month about the futility of our children's approaches to Islam, and its dire ramifications for our future as a community. A reporter recently asked me if this was only a problem for our community or for Islamic societies more generally. It took me a while to see it, but this is a much more general problem, and that is what I hope to discuss today.

In preparation for the khutba, I went back and reread a book that I had read 30 years ago in my undergraduate student years, the late Professor Fazlur-Rahman's Islam and Modernity. I did not appreciate his emphasis on education when I read this book as a 20-year old, but now I have found his analysis very illuminating. I have also found it very disheartening to combine his analysis up to the early 1980s with what has happened in the past 30 years. In what follows, I paraphrase Fazlur Rahman's analysis with some interpretations and elaborations of my own.

The early Muslims shortly after the death of the Prophet (p) had internalized fully the social and spiritual message of the Qur'an and the example of the Prophet (p), whose character was the Qur'an. It was only a generation or two later that "tradition" of the Prophet as well as the application of Qur'an to daily life acquired what Fazlur Rahman called an "atomistic" character, using separate verses and traditions as legal proofs for various rulings. The best scholars only used such proofs when there was preponderance of evidence not only of their authenticity, but also of their understanding and applicability of the entire canon to specific situations. However, they became the exception rather than the rule in Islamic "scholarship."

Gradual decline produced a large medieval literature (which we use as our primary sources of Islamic "learning" to this day) that consists of two strands. The first is a clever but sterile literature of commentary upon summary upon commentary, etc., which took the atomism of the proto-jurists to absurd extremes (some legal and some linguistic) and produced no useful knowledge. The second is an escapist mystical tradition that went absurdly beyond the basic functions of self purification and character development to focus on esoteric formulas of various types. Both traditions shunned logic and industry, contributing in significant part to the decline of Islamic civilization. They constituted what the Prophet (p) derided as sterile or useless knowledge.

At the turn of the previous century, seeking to catch up with civilization, revival movements to combine Islamic authenticity with modernity arose in various parts of the world. Prominent examples included Muhammad `Abduh in Egypt, Muhammad Iqbal in India, and Said Nursi in Turkey, all of whom were anti colonial but not antagonistic to the West. They aimed to combine modern sciences, philosophy, and other areas of knowledge toward a better understanding of what Islam means for the modern era, in the process to facilitate socioeconomic as well as spiritual development. These enlightened thinkers coexisted with another class of modernists who sought to discard all social Islamic teachings as outdated and irrelevant, and at best to let religion be a private affair for rituals that are ends in themselves (or for the hereafter), rather than means to individual and social human improvement.

Unfortunately, the enlightened movements spearheaded by these thinkers were soon replaced by populist movements with significantly less scholarly leaders who nonetheless emerged into legendary figures for their followers. Respectively, these would be Hassan El-Banna in Egypt, Abul-'A`la Al-Mawdudi in India/Pakistan, and Fethullah Gulen in Turkey. These populists were men of action who attracted other men of action. They were themselves not truly scholarly, but most of their followers were even less scholarly, so the Banna, Mawdudi, and Gulen pseudo-scholarly teachings remained sacrosanct and did not help to develop a new Islamic mindset. Their followers were professionals, politicians, etc. who professed that the message of Islam (including for the modern era) is very simple, and therefore sought only to enlarge their network and build institutions. Their focus can be surmised in various forms of identity politics that they encouraged, including today's manifestations in dress codes, "Islamic finance," and the like.

Our Islamic societies in the U.S. were mainly built by young men from these traditions, especially the Muslim Brotherhood and the Jamaat-i-Islami, who formed the core of Muslim Student Associations, and later ISNA, ICNA, ISGH and the like. These institutions rarely were led by intellectual visions other than identity politics with all its positive and negative aspects.

For politics large and small, near and far, the programs developed by MB, JI, and their offshoots have failed miserably. For near politics on a large scale witness the oscillation between Republican support in 2000 and Democratic support today, without any intelligent explanation of why we prefer one platform over another (e.g. does Islam support healthcare reform, progressive taxes, financial regulation, etc.? When have Islamic leaders opined on these?). For near politics on a small scale witness the dysfunctionality of our local organizations like ISGH which are run like small tribal/family clubs, again failing to meet the full religious, and therefore by necessity social and political needs of the community. For far away politics on a large scale, witness the dismal failures of Pakistan, Sudan, Iran, and soon other countries that think that identity politics and good intentions can suffice.

What Fazlur-Rahman never witnessed in his lifetime were the children of the communities led by MB and JI offshoots; our children. They could see that these identity politics programs were not built on solid Islamic world views, and have not been particularly successful. Some of them became like the modernists of the early twentieth century, and at best just pray, fast, etc. and try to be good people, but their Islamic identity is not integral to who they are in any substantive way. Others sought to find authentic Islamic learning, but they went full circle to the sterile medieval scholarship (like Maghreb Institute), recycled Sufi doctrines (numerous tariqas), or combinations thereof (like Zaytuna). It is as if we have come back full circle and hadn't learned that the aborted enlightenment movement of the early 20th century had revolted precisely against these useless forms of pseudo scholarship and pseudo spirituality that contributed to Muslim retardation.

Even Fazlur Rahman's own suggested research program, which was to fully comprehend the Qur'an in its totality and interpret what it means for the modern era -- part of the program popularized by Omar Al-Faruqi and others as "Islamization of knowledge" -- was itself simply a return to what `Abduh, Iqbal, and Nursi had tried to accomplish and to have failed.

I know that you would prefer that the khateeb would not only diagnose a problem, but also offer a solution. Alas, I do not know what is the solution, and no individual should pretend to offer a simple and ready solution. Finding a solution is itself a political process, in which one cannot be merely a spectator. The one thing that I can say with some level of certainty is that we have been going around on the inside rim of a vicious circle, unable to break free and integrate our modern lives with our Islamic teaching and identity. Even those of us who have reconciled the two in semi-separate domains have not really integrated them, and our Islam as well as our modernity will not be complete unless we do so.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Muslim Education and Another Parable of Light

A righteous man built a beautiful and tranquil estate for his family. Then, as he neared death, he gathered his children around him and told them that the secret of his success, and theirs after him, is in his sacred book.

Part of the magic of the sacred book, he told them, was that each of his children, and their offspring to the end of time, will get their own identical copies. The difficulty, he said, is that they need to read this book at night, away from all distractions and temptations.

Within one generation, the righteous man's offspring ran out of the oil that he had used for light.
The following generations followed different paths.

Some concluded that the best way to read in the dark is imply to memorize the words during the day. Generation after generation, the meaning of these memorized words was lost and some decided instead of memorizing just to move their fingers over the words without reading or recitation. They fell into poverty, laying to waste what was left of their portion of the estate.

Others traveled far and near,  importing all types of oil from Greece and Persia and every new civilization that generated new light. But the words seemed no different at night than they were by day, so they concluded that obeying the righteous forefather's commands was paramount, even if his special oil was not to be found. So, they collected every fragment of the story of their forefather, relevant or irrelevant: how he lit the oil, how many words he recited, and in what order, where he put his sandals when he did so, and so on. They kept competing in the collection and perfection of every detail until they forgot the primary command to read the sacred book away from distractions and temptations. They had imported so many lighting materials, spent all night and day pouring over the book and the traditions, and produced so little, that those who sold them the light on credit confiscated their portion of the estate.

A third group reasoned that the forefather's oil emanated from within him. As his descendants, they reasoned, they can generate their own oil. They became so enamored with the idea that all light essentially emanated from within themselves that they thought the book itself was not as important as finding the purest oil within themselves, the one that almost self ignites without being touched by fire. They also concluded that their portion of the estate was a temptation and a distraction so they gave it away.

Offspring of all three groups felt that their forefathers had gone astray, be they "memorizers," "scholars," or "mystics." They reasoned that the sacred book's message was in fact extremely simple, and the righteous man was simply instructing them to clear their mind before each day, so that they can work better and prosper. They concluded that what they needed was action, and formed brotherhoods, parties, and other organizations, which mobilized numerous members with promises of consolidating their estate and regaining their long-lost prosperity. Once they had garnered sufficient support to lead, they -- and their dismayed followers -- discovered that they had no idea how to reconstitute their family or rebuild their estate.

The children of this fourth group reasoned that their parents had been so preoccupied with action, and had such a grossly oversimplified understanding of the message of the sacred book. They embarked on their own quest to succeed where their parents had failed. Sadly, they did so by tracing the footsteps of their forefathers in separate competing groups, so some preoccupied themselves with memorization, others with historical, grammatical and logical dissection of the text, and a third group with contemplating their inner lighting oil.

The righteous man's command was simple: clear your mind from distractions, clear your heart from temptations, and read the sacred book. But the book itself was anything but simple, and reading it for success in each generation is itself hard work, agreeing with others over what work it commands is hard work, and following its commands is hard work. Each of the four groups had done some of the work but in isolation from, and sometimes disparaging, the other groups. They all needed to do at least some of the work of the other groups to appreciate it, and then all must collaborate to rebuild their forefather's estate. The oil that once belonged to one man was scattered across his progeny. Only if they can pool their talents with mutual love for one another can their collective oil self-ignite and only then can the sacred book reveal its mysteries for their generation.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Islam, Economics, and the Egyptian Presidential Elections

Update 5/25: My spacial analysis was wrong in one respect. The two candidates closest to the new political center (moderately anti-secular, moderately leftist) together would have won the election. However, they split the votes of those with typical preference measuring distance of candidates from their ideal points in two-dimensional space. In the meantime, the two extreme candidates (the Muslim Brotherhood candidate and the Mubarak regime candidate) had blocks of voters with lexicographic preferences on the secular-anti-secular dimension. This brings back ultimate polarization and disastrous outcomes whoever wins. On the economic and international relations dimension, the two candidates are equally to the right, and that cannot sit well with a left-leaning populace.


I gave a talk earlier this week at AUC (my alma mater) about "Polarization and Reemerging Middles." The first part of the talk was on global income distribution dynamics and the role of industrialization. I concluded that first half with the argument that a window of opportunity might exist for countries in the Middle East (focusing on Egypt) to industrialize and leapfrog over some middle income countries over the next decade, but only if the political process can produce a social contract for functional social behavior.

In this regard, I turned to comparisons with Malaysia and Turkey, the models discussed by Islamists and secularists alike as possible role models for Egypt to follow. I show in the slides below that Egyptian society is nothing like Malaysia or Turkish societies, using data from the World Values Survey (2005-2008 wave). The data is very clear: the Egyptian public is much more left leaning and much more anti-secular than either the Turkish or Malaysian (possibly because roughly half the population in Turkey are ultra-secularist Ataturkists and half the population in Malaysia are non-Muslims of Indian and Chinese origin). Indeed, using data from the World Values Survey (2000-2001 wave), I show that the Egyptian public appears even more anti-secular than Pakistan!

I attach the series of slides showing these comparisons below without further commentary.

I then attach a video which shows my argument that one should think of current Egyptian politics in a spacial model of at least two dimensions: one is the religious anti-secular/secular dimension, and the other is the economic left/right dimension. We are used in the U.S. to thinking of both directions as the same (the religious right confounds the two dimensions, to the chagrin of very religious and socially conservative but economically liberal democrats). However, I think that we need to consider both dimensions in Egypt, because the society has moved quite far to the left and to the anti-secular direction. The 1970s clash between Nasserist/socialist/leftists and the Islamists seems to have created a strange hybrid, which is very clear in the partial autobiography of Abdel-Moneim Abul-Fotouh that I read recently, describing his great admiration for Nasser, who gave his father and uncles 5 feddans each, without which his father could not have married his mother whose family's land was confiscated in land reform, but also admitting to his roots in Salafi thought during his Jamaah Isalmiyah years when he confronted Sadat in a famous televised meeting.

In this video, I tried to show where the various candidates may be placed based on their comments. For example, the Muslim Brotherhood (and former candidate Salafi Hazem Salah Abu-Ismail) do not differ much from theoretical centrists like Amr Moussa on economic agendas. Their agenda coincides with the New Washington Consensus of neo-liberalism with safety nets. Therefore, while close to the actual center on anti-secularism, they are far on the economic left-right dimension (Khairat Al-Shatir is not too different from NDP economic tycoons, in terms of economic behavior or thought). The Nasserist Hamdeen Sabbahi matches the actual center on leftism but is too secular to have a chance. Abdel-Moneim Abul-Fotouh seems closest to the actual center. If he wins, he will likely face difficulties dealing with the Washington Consensus gang (including IMF, WB, as well as internal business communities such as the American Chamber of Commerce, etc.). On the other hand, if Amr Moussa wins, he is likely to get the full support of these business communities but run afoul the redistributional and anti-secular sentiments of the public. Finding a middle ground may be difficult, but is not impossible.

Now, I leave you to the slides and then the video (which shows how the center has moved from its theoretical position, and where I think the candidates are placed based on what I've seen and read).