Tuesday, June 28, 2022

The Foreigner Who Wants To Be A Citizen: A Fourth of July Sermon

 This is a draft of my sermon for this Friday, July 1, 2022 at ISGH Main Center.

يَا أَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا اتَّقُوا اللَّهَ وَقُولُوا قَوْلًا سَدِيدًا (الأحزاب: 70)

[O, Community of Faith, be God conscious and aim your words carefully (Allies: 70)]

Muslim narrated on the authority of Abu Hurayra (r) that the Prophet (p) said:

بدأ الإسلام غريباً و سيعود غريباً كما بدأ فطوبى للغرباء

[Islam began as a foreigner, and it will again become a foreigner as it had begun, so blessed are the foreigners.]

And Bukhari narrated on the authority of Abdullah ibn Umar (r) that the Prophet (p) held him by his shoulders and told him:

كن في الدنيا كأنك غريب أو عابر سبيل

 [Be in life like a foreigner or a wayfarer.]

We find comfort in these teachings, and accept being perpetual foreigners in this sense, both in our native and adopted countries. 

But we also want to be citizens, and the legal basis for my naturalized citizenship of the United States, and for my children's natural-born citizenship, is the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution. Article 1 reads:

"All persons born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws."

It was devastating late last week when the Supreme Court of the United States took away from American women a constitutional right that had been anchored fifty years ago in the same Fourteenth Amendment.

Leading legal scholars have noted that the ruling is oppressive to Muslim women, enumerating the different views on abortion in contemporary Islamic jurisprudence, while others have noted that several Muslim-majority countries allow legal abortion and many medieval Muslim jurists had allowed it in different circumstances, especially during the first trimester. 

But I would argue that as Muslim Americans, the dictates of Islamic jurisprudence on abortion are not relevant factors in defending the legal rights of others. To explain by analogy: I observe the Islamic prohibition of alcohol meticulously, but this does not mean that I would advocate for returning to early twentieth century prohibition laws (imposed by the Eighteenth Amendment in 1919 and repealed by the Twenty-First Amendment in 1933). 

We are all protected by the separation of church and state. Whether it is the Taliban of Afghanistan, the Ayatollahs of Iran, or the so-called "religious scholars" of my native region, appeals to religion to take away human rights are nothing more than naked power plays -- which vary only to the degree that states allow it. 

In this regard, Al-Tabari narrated that Ali ibn Abi Talib (r) criticized the Khawarij who had insisted that only the Qur'an should settle the great dispute of his time by saying:

هذا القرآن إنما هو خط مسطور بين دفتين لا ينطق إنما يتكلم به الرجال

["This Qur'an is just a set of written words between two covers; it does not speak, but men speak with its authority."]

The same is true of the U.S. Constitution: Written words interpreted by men. No system is ever perfect, and we should strive to make progress by choosing interpretations that progressively increase human rights.

The constitutional right to abortion under Roe was anchored in the Fourteenth Amendment right to privacy (as part of liberty). In this regard, ACLU and other civil rights organizations had argued that the types of surveillance, manipulation and entrapment to which our community has been subjected in recent years were violations of our Fourteenth Amendment rights to privacy. Alas, in March of this year the Supreme Court dismissed disputation of the legality of sending undercover agents as spies who apparently  attempted to radicalize and entrap Muslims in Southern California. To be clear, our community, if anything, is excessively eager to cooperate with law enforcement, but nobody benefits when overzealous agents try actively to radicalize vulnerable people.   

The methodology that the Supreme Court used in Dobbs to overturn Roe, is so-called "originalism": The justices ask what the framers of the constitutional amendment meant at the time of writing. The basis of their ruling was that women did not have the right to abortion when the Fourteenth Amendment was drafted in 1868. This methodology (and I must say that the same applies to much of what sadly passes for "Islamic jurisprudence" today) is fundamentally ahistorical in its lack of respect for historical trajectory and modern advances in Humanities, Social Sciences and Legal Theory. 

The same legal methodology in Dobbs can be used to prevent or take away Fourteenth Amendment citizenship from naturalized citizens like me and natural-born citizens like my children. Indeed, the same Mr. John Eastman, now of the January 6th insurrection infamy, had argued before congress in 2005 that the Fourteenth Amendment should be interpreted within the narrow confines of its intended nineteenth-century goal of granting citizenship to emancipated slaves and their progeny. Native Americans were not granted citizenship at the time, because they were viewed as subjects of the jurisdictions of their "Indian nations," and hence not of the United States. This pseudo-historical legal jujitsu has been a mainstay argument for opponents of immigration and birthright citizenship.

We wish to defend our citizenship rights, and the best way to defend these rights is to defend the rights of others. In this regard, I close with another story attributed by Al-Tabarani and others to Ali ibn Abi Talib (r) as he predicted his own tragic murder a few years after the tragic murder of Othman ibn Affan (r):

There were three bulls in the forest -- one red, one black and one white. They were too strong together for the lion to attack any of them. One day, the lion told the black and red bulls that the white bull was visible from afar and dangerous to them. "If I eat him," he said, "you both will be safe in the forest." They let him. A week later the bull convinced the black bull that the red one is too arrogant because of his fancy color, so he let him eat the red bull. The lion came the following week and told the black bull "I'll eat you now," to which the black bull replied: "No, I was eaten on the day that the white bull was eaten."

Thursday, June 02, 2022

Religion As Antidote for Religious Nationalism

 This is the draft of my sermon scheduled at ISGH Main Center on June 3, 2022.

يَا أَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا اصْبِرُوا وَصَابِرُوا وَرَابِطُوا وَاتَّقُوا اللَّهَ لَعَلَّكُمْ تُفْلِحُونَ (آل عمران: 200)
[O, community of faith, be patient, persevere in your patience and be steadfast; and exercise God consciousness so that you may succeed. (Family of  Amram: 200)]

0. The Global Problem of Rising Religious Nationalism

Anyone following recent election results in France and primary results in the U.S. must be concerned about the continued rise in Christian nationalism that targets Western Muslim communities like ours with special animus. This is particularly disconcerting in light of the growing tides of religious nationalism that have turned violent around the world: For example, Hindu-nationalist pogroms in majority-Muslim Indian villages, Buddhist-nationalist persecution of the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, and Jewish-ultranationalist provocation and attacks on Arab populations in Israel and the Palestinian lands that it occupies.

In this sermon, I would like to make three points.

1. Religious Nationalism Cannot Be Countered by Another Religious Nationalism

I delivered a sermon at this mosque eighteen and a half years ago, denouncing Islamic-nationalist thought, which was invented in the middle of the past century by semi-educated activists who confounded the classical Muslim notion of Ummah (religious community) with the modern concept of nation (which was invented in the eighteenth century). I do not wish to rehash the same arguments that I made then. But I want to recognize that this unfortunate Islamic-nationalism was a reaction to subjugation of Muslim populations by European colonial powers. I also wish to warn against allowing it to resurface in reaction to the current wave of resurgent Christian nationalism in our backyard. Responding to Christian (or any other religious) nationalism with Islamic nationalism would only exacerbate the problem by providing further fuel and justification for anti-Muslim religious nationalism. 

Sociologists who studied the rise of religious nationalism have shown that it may arise even among groups who belong to dominant majorities but who feel that their identity and way of life is threatened by social currents. Thus, analysis has shown that Christian-nationalist sentiments in the United States are driven by the view that the country's dominant religion is in fact secular multiculturalism, which those groups find threatening. Several surveys have shown that adherents to this view have grown in numbers and conviction that Christianity is integral to Americanness, and that they view Islam in particular as an alien ideology that is incompatible with American values. Prominent former and prospective candidates for President of the United States and numerous lower offices have made statements to this effect explicitly on several occasions.

2. Religious Nationalism Cannot Be Countered by Courting Secular Ultra-Liberalism

Fortunately, many members of our community have seen the errors of Islamic nationalism of the previous century and sought to find better political responses to the rise of Christian nationalism that targets our communities in particular. They exercise the patience, perseverance and steadfastness that are enjoined in the opening verse of this sermon. This is the right approach religiously: not to respond angrily to insults. 

This is the central message of the verse:
وَمَا يُلَقَّاهَا إِلا الَّذِينَ صَبَرُوا وَمَا يُلَقَّاهَا إِلا ذُو حَظٍّ عَظِيمٍ (فصلت: 35)
[Yet none shall receive (this great reward), except the steadfast; none shall receive it, except those who are very fortunate. (Well Expounded: 35)]

In their commentaries on this verse, exegetes have cited the Prophetic Tradition narrated by Ahmad on the authority of Abu Hurayra (r) that Abu Bakr (r) was sitting with the Prophet (p) when a man insulted Abu Bakr repeatedly, while Abu Bakr (r) was silent and the Prophet (p) continued to smile in amusement. Then after the their third insult, Abu Bakr (r) answered the man, at which time the Prophet (p) left. Abu Bakr (r) followed him and said: "The man kept insulting me in your presence and I kept forgiving him and refraining from responding; but then when I answered him to defend my honor, you left, O Messenger of God." The Prophet (p) replied by saying:
[O, Abu Bakr, an angel was replying on your behalf, but once you decided to defend your own honor, the angel left and Satan came, and by God, I would not stay sitting down with Satan, Abu Bakr.]

That was from a purely religious standpoint, but of course patience, perseverance and steadfastness do not constitute an invitation to do nothing. 

Politically, what most members of our community have decided to do has been to ally themselves with the strongest political opponents of the Christian nationalists, who happen to be secular ultra-liberals. This is also a natural reaction, to align with the strongest opponents of your opponent, albeit just as counterproductive as using your own incoherent religious nationalism to counter a hostile religious nationalism. This is especially the case because the latter has adopted a "replacement theory" that suggests that Muslims were brought to this land to replace its rightful voters and workers. Thus, aligning exclusively with the mostly secular and ultra-liberal political opponents of Christian nationalism can only lead to escalation by reinforcing this narrative. Moreover, from a pragmatic point of view, coalitions of convenience with the ultra-secular liberal left are unlikely to survive for long because of the wide cultural gulf between the social preferences of rank and file Muslims and the social preferences of those allies of convenience. We have seen in recent elections how large numbers of religiously-conservative Black and Hispanic communities have not found this alliance to be viable.

3. Authentic Religion Is The Best Antidote for Religious Nationalism

Where does this leave us? Who can we court as natural allies to counter toxic religious nationalism? The answer may not be obvious at first, but it should be clear in retrospect. Our natural allies are other communities of faith: religious Christians to counter Christian-nationalism, religious Jews to counter Jewish-ultranationalism, religious Hindus to counter Hindu-nationalism, and so on. Those religious groups  have both the credibility and tools to defang their ultranationalist coreligionists by teaching their authentic religious doctrines that call for peaceful coexistence and cooperation. Toward that end, our best rhetorical tool is interfaith dialogue, and our best political tool is to form alliances with like-minded members who adhere to authentic (not nationalist) Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, etc., regardless of their party affiliations.