The so-called Muslim ban that the current American administration has sought to establish in order to allegedly stop harmful individuals from reaching our shores has also led to a vigorous response from immigrant rights groups and from large segments of the American population. The debate that this very unfortunate and highly discriminatory policy plan created nationwide is however lacking an adequate understanding of issues surrounding Muslims and Islam in this country and around the world. What might seem as the extreme stance of an administration that was elected on a nationalist agenda is in fact a logical outcome of a long history of suspicion and distrust towards Muslims in many corners of American politics and is connected to a much longer history of Western vilification of the “Muhammadan,” the “Turk,” and the “heathen.” I will leave aside the long-term history and focus instead on recent times.
It is important to remember that even the shift within the American left towards a much more openly inclusive attitude towards Muslims is rather new and is connected to developments in national and global politics that are reshaping power structures in significant ways. For a long time, the American left was at best a spectator and at worst a participant in the maintenance of the notion of a “Muslim problem.” On the other side of the political spectrum, Muslims and Islam never ceased to be viewed in unflattering terms. Any basic research on the rhetoric and policies of the American right in the last few decades would demonstrate how it implicitly, and in many instances quite explicitly, embraced the notion of a Muslim problem that must be remedied. The suspicious attitude of conservatives towards Muslims was strengthened by the tragic events of 9/11 but it also became partly connected to our adventures into various parts of the Muslim world, including Iraq and Afghanistan. Many of those adventures were poorly planned, did not have an adequate understanding of the histories and realities of the local populations, and participated in creating chaotic situations and disastrous outcomes for ordinary people. Importantly, the overseas wars helped sustain the notion that American citizens of Muslim background and permanent residents of the U.S. from Muslim-majority societies were to be feared because their direct or indirect relations to places with high degrees of anti-Americanism and terrorist activities posed a serious security threat.
The result of the last presidential election and the way the campaign season unfolded has pushed many segments of the American left, which had finally discovered in the last decade that Muslims were also an integral part of the American experience, faster towards challenging the notion of a Muslim problem. However, the rather superficial frame of diversity that the left has defended in its recent history is also plaguing its interaction with Muslims and has kept leftists from inquiring deeper into whether there was indeed a Muslim problem. I would suggest that there is a “Muslim problem” but not in the terms that American public discourses have constructed it.
The Muslim problem is primarily one of perception. That perception is partly the outcome of misreading or simply ignoring the complex realities of Muslims and Islam. The misunderstandings have accumulated over time to the point that it becomes necessary to re-establish some basic points and highlight some thorny issues.
Islam is a set of diverse spiritual traditions, extremely rich legal and theological discourses, and various ritual practices, but it has unfortunately been reduced to a narrow political identity by Muslim ideologues, conservative pundits, and leftist activists alike. In addition, human beings with their contradictions, psychological complexities, social commitments, personal desires and interests are in turn reduced to that narrow identity: “Muslims.” This superficial articulation makes it very difficult to approach individuals of Muslim background without heavy presuppositions. It is no surprise that Muslims are primarily represented as communities of like-minded people and rarely as independent individuals capable of their own unique rational decisions.
More importantly, the “Muslimness” is often elevated to an unchanging essence. For many on the political right, this translates to viewing Muslims as incapable by their very nature of being truly American. For many on the political left, it translates to seeing the authentic Muslims as those who adhere to what is perceived as traditional conservative lifestyles and who by being faithful to their true identity are the only valid representatives of Islam. Both left and right end up projecting onto the worlds of Muslims their own assumptions and disregard the internal dynamics of those worlds.
What is often missed is that both the predominance of polemical attitudes on the right towards Islam and Muslims and the growing apologist trend for Islam and Muslims on the left undermine the difficult work of critical and reformist people of Muslim background who are seeking to rethink problematic aspects of the Islamic heritage. Islam is a complex set of discourses that have evolved and will continue to evolve at the hands of those who interpret it. Defining what Islam is at a particular time or place is not solely decided by inherited authoritative texts but also and primarily by living communities. The question then becomes what kind of perspectives would end up dominating within Islam, and this has a lot to do with social, political, and economic factors. The environments and circumstances of people facilitate the act of embracing particular interpretations and not others. What seems representative today was not necessarily so in the past nor will it be necessarily representative in the future.
There are seemingly violent, anti-pluralistic, misogynistic, and homophobic texts in the Islamic sacred sources as well as in the works of influential premodern Muslim scholars, but other texts within those sources and works appear to promote the exact opposites of those values. All major religions are at one level prisoners of the historical contexts in which they develop. At another level, however, those religions transcend the limitations of their original contexts because they find adherents in a variety of other settings throughout history and they therefore become malleable in the hands of those adherents with their unique material and spiritual needs, interests, social struggles, power structures, etc… In that regard, it is similar to what we find in the history of America as a nation. We have histories of inclusion, pluralism, equality, and compassion but there are also histories of racism, misogyny, homophobia, and violence. It is the people at particular points and in particular circumstances who decide what defines our life as a nation or as communities in various parts of the country.
Just as we rightly recognize the serious threat of racist nationalist tendencies that have recently resurfaced, with a vengeance, in the American landscape, we must also be aware that a “fundamentalist” exclusivist trend and mindset has unfortunately dominated the world of modern Islam. This exclusivist trend has been able to build networks that use a variety of institutions to shape the religious understanding of a very large number of Muslims. At the same time, alternative inclusivist Islamic perspectives suffer from a lack of access to the average believer partly because of limited financial means and the absence of strong institutions. In the U.S., such alternative critical voices and currents are also undermined by the political discourses and deeds of social actors on both the right and the left. Pundits on the right routinely vilify Muslims and demonize Islam as a religion while activists on the left choose and promote as partners institutionally well-established but reactionary Muslim voices, without bothering to research their problematic positions and/or hold them accountable for their views and actions.
This state of affairs even touches faith organizations and churches. While many conservative churches are eager to invite Islam-bashing and Muslim-hating so-called experts to address their communities, many liberal and progressive churches and synagogues give a platform to illiberal Muslim speakers because of well-meaning attempts to build bridges with established Islamic institutions but at the same time shun critical and reform-minded Muslims because their perspectives seem to threaten to burn those bridges. I certainly understand and fully back efforts to support Muslims and protect their rights and well-being in these dire times. However, I highly doubt that strengthening the power and impact of illiberal and highly conservative Muslim voices is an adequate way to achieve that noble goal of supporting ordinary Muslims in the long term. Furthermore, it is extremely frustrating to me, as a progressive liberal Muslim, to see progressives and liberals of other faiths, whose communities have fought hard battles to promote liberal and progressive values within their own religious institutions, turning their backs to those seeking to promote and defend the same values within Muslim contexts, sometimes taking a high risk doing so.
I am sharing these reflections while fully aware that our current public discourse makes little room for nuanced treatments of difficult and controversial issues. My goal is not to feed controversy in any way but rather to encourage my fellow Americans and fellow Muslims to pursue deeper discussions over how to build a livable future for our children and grandchildren. Amen.