The reason American Muslims dont condemn terror | Salon.com
March 1, 2007
Paul Barrett writes in Salon about this perennial question. I’m not sure if this is just an excerpt or summary of something in the book. (I’ll check.) Just like his book, he gets the part of the problem he covers basically right, but totally misses the bigger picture. He says the media hasn’t been listening to people like Khalid Abou El Fadl, who have been clear from the beginning in their condemnation. But Muslims have also failed to convey the message:
But this disconnect may not stem entirely from a failure to listen. It may also have to do with the way American Muslims have condemned terrorism. Specifically, until recently, Muslim leaders often added caveats to their condemnations that robbed them of real force.
Actually, the fact is that traditional Muslims, and especially their clergy, have had absolutely no access to a public platform in America or anywhere in the West. At the same time, there is almost no language in which traditional Muslims could hope to convey their opinions and beliefs – regarding terrorism or anything else. So, superficially, Barrett’s analysis rings true. But what he means, and what I mean are worlds apart.
The first obstacle is that many Americans, and the media in particularly have completely lost the ability to speak sensibly about religion. As far as the publig discourse is concerned, being religious is a matter of voting Republican, opposing abortion and gay rights, and so on. You don’t do these things because you are religious, you are religious because you do them. This is absurd. But it makes it easy to understand Muslims for whom one’s piety is to be measured in one’s support for the Palestinians.
When the first wave of modern Muslim immigration to the US took place beginning in the ’60s, it consisted mainly of young men coming to pursue medical and engineering education or careers. Already, a large portion of these people were connected to either the Muslim Brotherhood and its decendants in the Middle East, or to Maududi’s Jama`at-e Islami in South Asia. Both of these groups have similar agendas – for them Islam is a political theory, a way to achieve an ideal society. Their political sensibility is mostly derived from totalitarian models, and wrapped in Islamic terminology and superficial references.
It was these people who established the first modern mosques and Muslim organizations. (There was a smattering of mosques built across the country by earlier immigrant groups.) They built the MSA, ISNA, ICNA, everything. They spread their influence and maintained their grip. Their intellectual and biological descendants established CAIR and the other political groups. And though their beliefs are not those of the Muslim-American public, they have almost complete control of the so-called leadership. And they are the only people the media ever talks to. This is true to such an extent that in order to launch a fatwa against attacks on civilians, as Barrett mentions, it had to be done through people like Nihad Awad and Muzammil Siddiqui – people who have no right or qualification to be anywhere near the process of ifta’ or fatwa-issung. Nearly everyone profiled by Barrett is a product of this group’s legacy (which you can verify by coparing the Table of Contents of his book with the program from any ICNA convention.)
The political Muslims we’re talking about are merely a subset of a larger group whose distinguishing feature is the renunciation of traditional Islamic scholarship. The result is a complete lack of grounding and principles, and a Muslim “priesthood of all believers.” Whereas for a traditional scholar, it is no difficult task to see and say that Islam forbids violence against non-combatants, and individual violence undertaken outside the sovereign authority of the state, these people try to make every decision on their own. Some of them see what their doing as relying on reason. Others claim to be following “Qur’an and Sunnah” exclusively. But in the end, each of them has nothing to gude them bu their own whims. The result of this is that many of them are perceived as “conservatives” and others as “liberals,” based on the conclusions they reach. But their methodology and intellectual pedigree is all the same. In much of the traditional Muslim world, the collective name for all of these people is Wahhabi.
The only person, so far as I remember, in Barrett’s book who is actually a traditionally trained Islamic scholar, and who espouses anything close to traditional Islam is Hamza Yusuf. Before 9/11 though, even he catered to the ICNA/ISNA crowd, and Allah knows best what he was doing and thinking then. Otherwise, every single person in the book – including Abou El Fadl and Asra Nomani, falls squarely into the camp I’ve described as Wahhabi. By refusing to adhere to the standards of Islamic scholarship, they discard all standards, and they have no leg to stand on in denouncing terrorism from an Islamic standpoint.
Meanwhile, traditional Muslims – in their less glamorous, non-Saudi-funded mosques in America and around the world, have been articulating a very clear, well-founded, and utterly principled stand against terrorism. Not just since 9/11 or the London bombings, but since 1000 years before the word terrorism was invented, since before the West had a concept of international law or of the rights of man. But in the few cases when the press has covered traditional scholars – usually in the context of interviewing a local imam – usually it has been treated as nothing more than a curiosity. The press doesn’t know what questions to ask, and the ulama have no idea how to explain themselves or acquire a platform.