When I refer to Al-Arian’s demagoguery, I am not simply name-calling. A common definition of a demagogue is one who gains popularity by exploiting prejudice and ignorance to arouse common people against elites, whipping up the passions of the crowd and shutting down reasoned deliberation. Many Muslims now favor this approach to airing differences precisely because they know (or hope) that it will completely neutralize the only thing that could stand in their way: the teachings of Islam! Mention BDS, Trump, revolution, CVE or Black Lives Matter, and the Qur’an and Sunna don’t stand a chance, let alone fiqh or anything else from Muslim tradition. Instead, anyone who invokes any of these authorities will be dismissed as an apologist, while the demagogue crowns his- or herself the defender of Islam!
This almost always includes an attempt to enshrine one perspective on Islam in America as the litmus test for all Muslims. Unfortunately, this routinely turns out to be little more than the obsessions of a subset of immigrant Muslims who have anointed themselves the ancestral guardians of Islam. This has been going on for as long as I can remember. And before you dismiss this as just another anti-immigrant rant, you might want to consider that there are likely many more immigrant Muslims who will attest to my contributions to their Islam than there are Blackamerican Muslims who will attest to al-Arian’s contributions to theirs.
I have spent my entire adult life studying Islam. If Al-Arian disagrees with a view or action of mine, this should be the basis for a conversation. Or he can simply criticize my views or actions unilaterally, with no conversation. But he is way out of line to impugn my personal integrity. And he is sadly mistaken if he thinks that he will be able to bully or ‘demagogue’ me into accepting the notion that he (or those he purports to represent) is the authority from whom I must get permission to think or act as a Muslim. Of course, there is much talk today about how scholars need to be held accountable. Fair enough. But Al-Arian’s essay clearly suggests that we need to expand that conversation to ask about the standards to which non-scholars are to be held.
Al-Arian mentions that, “the Muslim American community seemed united at least in its opposition to the Trump administration.” He and those who make up this alleged consensus are apparently offended by Trump’s so-called Muslim ban. But a Blackamerican sister in Chicago once asked me rhetorically why she should support having Muslims come to this country who are only going to treat her like crap. We heard this same talk about Muslim consensus leading up to the 2000 presidential election, i.e., that the Muslim community was united behind George W. Bush (“family values” and all). But is there anyone dauntless enough to suggest that the Blackamerican Muslim community unanimously supported Bush? These are the kinds of false consensuses that we have been dealing with for years. And al-Arian sees fit to base his indictment of Muslim leaders on such flimsy grounds? I know Muslims who voted for Trump. And I think these brothers and sisters are or were politically misguided. But what has that to do with their “political courage” or “moral integrity”? How can al-Arian impugn a fellow Muslim’s personal and moral integrity simply because s/he differs with him politically?
Speaking of moral courage, Al-Arian nods to Malcolm and Ali as if to signal how down he is with the Blackamerican Muslim community. In point of fact, anyone can invoke these household names, without knowing anything about Blackamerican Muslims. If Al-Arian had any idea of the degree of sacrifice, tenacity and courage that some of us converts, black, white, brown and other – especially sisters — had to acquire and maintain just to convert to Islam and to stay Muslim, he might not be so quick to give himself permission to lecture us about courage.
Of course, Al-Arian might point out that he was only talking about “political” courage. But this really underscores my point. Because he has decided that political courage is the relevant courage, he arrogates to himself the right to judge everyone on that basis. But as many know, while politics is important, I do not believe that our biggest challenge in America is political. None of us can deny the alarming rates of attrition and falling away from Islam that we have witnessed over the past few decades – some of this in our own families! And yet, who was in the White House or what America’s relationship with Saudi Arabia or the UAE was has not made the major difference. Our primary problem in America is not electoral politics per se but the fact that the socio-cultural reality that now engulfs us is one in which Muslims – especially young Muslims — struggle to find meaning and relevance in Islam. If academics like me appear to be politically ‘unmusical’, might it be because electoral politics does not hold the priority for us that it holds for al-Arian and those in whose name he purports to speak? And might not his singular obsession with politics in reality be a cop-out, a thinly veiled admission of impotence in the face of the real challenge of altering the American socio-cultural landscape? Al-Arian mentions Malcolm and Ali. But their real contributions to Islam in America were not so much political as they were socio-cultural. Malcolm and Ali brought cultural and intellectual authority to the Blackamerican community, through which Blackamericans could define and redefine themselves, independent of the dominant culture. Today, by contrast, Muslims in America have virtually zero cultural authority and zero intellectual authority. How is opposition to Trump (or Obama or anyone else) supposed to change that? And without these, how are we to prevent the disquieting and debilitating sense that Islam is woefully inferior to the dominant order from invading our children’s souls?
Speaking of the dominant order, Al-Arian has the shocking temerity to accuse me of aligning myself with and lending credibility to white supremacy. If this weren’t so sad it would be laughable. I don’t know any Muslim who has been more explicit and eloquent in their critique of white supremacy – from an Islamic perspective! — than I have. But its funny, when Islam and the Blackamerican came out some fourteen years ago, many in the immigrant community condemned me for trucking the ‘alien concept of race’ into the discourse on Islam in America, as if I had abandoned Islam for the NOI. But then, as soon as they found a way to ‘weaponize’ this critique for their purposes, it gained acceptance and they became the champions of anti-white supremacy. The sad fact, however, is that many of them still do not understand white supremacy. Many of them are not against white supremacy at all; they are simply angry at white people! Like the white church for whom accepting Jesus as Lord and Savior could not dissolve the black-white divide, the shahādah among many Muslims today is equally incapable of gaining our white brothers and sisters unquestioned acceptance as bona fide Muslims. There was a time in America when many thought that Islam would be the force to bring healing to the racial divide. Unfortunately, Muslims have now become a part of the disease instead of the cure. And in this context, I would really encourage brother al-Arian to reconsider who has the “colonized reading” of Muslim tradition. But alas, as our Prophet (Ṣ) told us: “You will follow them step by step, foot by foot, even if they enter into the hole of a lizard”!
Personally, I would be much more convinced of Al-Arian’s contempt for white supremacy if I saw a little more contempt within the Muslim community for immigrant supremacy. Sure, black lives matter; but only in the abstract, when we are talking about non-Muslims in Baltimore, New York or Ferguson. They don’t seem to matter that much when it comes to the brother praying next to you in the mosque or the little black girl teased and marginalized for her dark skin in these so-called “Islamic schools”. Al-Arian’s passion for social justice is fine. But, given these unlovely and undeniable realities, I trust that he will pardon me if I am not so moved by all this high-faluting talk about revolution and the cause of the oppressed.
Speaking more specifically, al-Arian cites two direct actions of mine that are supposed to reflect my lack of political courage and moral integrity. The first is that I am supposed to be “an advisor to the Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) initiative of the right-wing think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies, alongside former British PM Tony Blair, who stands accused of war crimes in Iraq.” First of all, this is simply wrong. I am not an advisor to CSIS; I was simply asked to join a commission that was to draft a recommendation to the incoming U.S. President on violent extremism, and after consulting with a number of Washington insiders, including Muslim politicians, I decided to accept. Everyone I consulted agreed that this report was going to be written and that if I had any chance to shape it I should take it. I don’t know, by the way, where Al-Arian got the idea that CSIS is a “right wing” outfit. Anyway, while I won’t divulge what went on in the meetings, as a matter of amānah, I will say two things: 1) I was, albeit in a very limited way, able to influence some of the wording of the report, wording that many of the other commissioners didn’t even recognize as problematic; 2) most of the other commissioners might agree that Tony Blair wished that I had not been present.
At any rate, my joining this commission was based entirely on my assessment of how I might be able to prevent undo bias from dominating the report. Meanwhile, during a “sidebar” at a gathering of Muslim scholars in Texas later that year, I explained to a few of the brothers that while I believed I was right to be on the inside doing what I could, if others thought that CVE was wrong they should be on the outside protesting like hell! This, in my view, is the way mature communities sometimes have to do things: its Malcolm and Martin; its chess, not checkers! At any rate, I fail to see the political cowardice or moral turpitude in any of this. And I fail to see where my efforts amounted to “stifling political resistance” or leading our community astray.
The second action al-Arian cites was a meeting I attended with President Sisi of Egypt, pursuant to my membership in the UAE sponsored Council of Muslim Elders. And let me say a word here about this whole UAE thing. First, I noticed (in a piece published by Aljazeera) that al-Arian said nothing about the fact that I served in Doha on the Board of Advisors for the Qatar Foundation’s Faculty of Islamic Studies for a number of years, including the period of the Iraq war. Does that mean that I agreed with the role of U.S. military bases in Qatar during that period? Why, then, should my being a member of the Council imply that I agree with everything the UAE government does? Second, as an influential Muslim scholar recently pointed out, the fact that one enters a partisan space does not mean that one cannot speak from a place of principle. The last two times I spoke in the UAE, once in English and once in Arabic, I mentioned directly and explicitly the problem of religious violence, on the one hand, and the problem of government repression, mass imprisonment and torture, on the other. No political courage? No moral integrity?
As for the Council itself, again, as a manner of amānah, I will not discuss any of its official proceedings, except to say that I am not known on the Council to be one who holds his tongue. Of course, none of this solves all the problems of the Muslim world. And for that reason, many will see no value in my being on the Council, or in the Council itself, for that matter. But how do we go from that to political cowardice and a lack of moral integrity?
Anyway, getting back to the meeting in Egypt, according to al-Arian, this is supposed to represent my support for everything the Egyptian government does. In fact, however, that meeting was not supposed to take place in Egypt; it was supposed to occur in France, where we were to meet with the World Council of Churches. As the only American Muslim on the Council, I felt it was particularly important for me to be at this meeting. I wanted to make sure that Muslim-Christian solidarity was understood to mean working together to normalize a God-centered life in the modern world, not Muslims working to accept secularism as part of Christianity’s civilizational heritage. But then, the terrorist attacks in Paris happened, and an “emergency” meeting was called in Cairo. Now, whenever the Council goes to a country for the first time, it is customary to meet with the head of state. The first time the Council met in Egypt was some eight months or so earlier. I excused myself. For this second (emergency) meeting, I did not know that the Council was going to meet with the President. Protocol took over, however, and I ended up at the meeting. Al-Arian (and others) may scoff at this. But as an Arab, he should know and be willing to acknowledge just how much of an absolute beast Middle Eastern protocol can be.
Still, feelings run high when it comes to Middle East politics. So, to those whose feelings were injured by my attending that meeting, I apologize. But so should al-Arian for his hyped up insinuation that I lined up with malice aforethought to support everything the Egyptian government does. The Prophet (S) asked the Companion Ḥāṭib b. Abī Balta‘ah why he treasonously passed information to the Meccans. But here, a single photo about which no explanation is even sought is taken as the basis for impugning the integrity of a man who for forty years has tried to give to the Muslim community everything his meager resources would allow him to give. If this is the depth of analysis (and the standard of fairness) that is going to inform our affairs, we are in big trouble indeed.
But there is another side to this issue, with which we must collectively come to terms. We are a diverse community with diverse backgrounds and interests, not all of which fully align. What do we do with a congressman who supports Affirmative Action but is hawkish on the Palestinian issue? Al-Arian takes it upon himself to elevate the feelings of part of the community to the level of representing the whole. But there are Blackamerican Muslims who are tired – sick and tired! – of never seeing themselves, despite all that they have sacrificed, endured and contributed, represented in anything having to do with Islam on the global stage. And for many of them, the concerns that al-Arian (and others) raises about this meeting in Cairo pale in comparison with their interest in seeing one of their own ‘represent’. What do we do with these feelings and sentiments? Are they not as valid as those of al-Arian and those who were offended by my action? More important, should I be less cognizant of the sensibilities of Blackamerican Muslims than al-Arian expects me to be of his and those he represents? I remember once telling a Blackamerican brother about the CVE controversy. His response to me was, “CVE? What’s that?” Are we simply to dismiss him as a victim of false consciousness? Or do we as a community need to be more open to dialogue, more aware of our diverse backgrounds and more tolerant of competing perspectives?
Let me end by saying that I believe that Ali al-Arian, my brother in Islam, is only a symptom of the problem. The real problem is us, the Muslim community at large. For, it is we who have embraced this culture of demagoguery and allowed it to gain a foothold. And we will collectively pay a hefty price for this. Instead of being able to discuss our issues openly and fully, the culture of demagoguery will drive all of us to seek safety in silence, muffled opinions or simply yelling and feigning righteous indignation along with the crowd. In this state, we will never see the best of the talents and insights that God has placed in this community come to fruition and work their magic. Instead, we will remain in a state of dependency. Even as we continue to scream and shout in defiance, this will all remain within the boundaries of permissible dissent as set by the dominant order. This is the condition that the tyrants whom al-Arian so harshly criticizes have cultivated for generations in the Muslim world. Surely al-Arian cannot want the same thing for his Muslim brothers and sisters here in America. And Allah knows best.