My response to “Sh Haitham responds to this week’s BBC Panorama”

haddad

In this article I would like to address three main points raised in Haddad’s response:
i) his claim to mainstream Islam
ii) his comments regarding Panorama documentary causing divisions
iii) and the fueling of Islamophobic attacks

In an attempt to respond to allegations made on Panorama, Haddad tries to shield himself by using the term “mainstream Islam”.  This common tactic is used to imply that an attack on him i.e. his ‘Islamic’ views, is a direct attack on Islam itself. Thus, the reason Haddad gets attacked because ultimately Islam is under attack.  Haddad knows very well that if he plays on the feelings of everyday Muslim persecution it will result in Muslims rallying around him.  Haddad and supporters often use and abuse such terms when on the back foot.  A similar tactic is to appeal to the dogma of unity, the ‘Ummah” and its abuse amounts to nothing more than a form of Muslim-tribalism. Such terms serve well to divert the attention from noxious views acting as a get out of jail card. But, what of his claim to mainstream Islam? For those that are not acquainted with Haddad, he was student of Abd al Aziz Ibn Baz, a leading advocate of the Wahabism form of Islam, which has a sinister history.   The foundations of Wahhabi theology were established by the eighteenth-century by the reformist Muhammed bin ‘Abd al-Wahhab (d. 1206/1792).  When Haddad refers to Mainstream Islam, is he referring to his Wahhabi Islam training?   If so, given its origins, it’s rather far fetched to claim it so. It may be gaining ground, but it cannot be considered orthodox Islam nor is it practiced by the majority of Muslims.

What about comments regarding the Panorama documentary creating divisions? Well this I find ironic. The founder of Wahabism was vehemently Schismatic, the fastest Takfiri in the East so to speak. ‘Abd al-Wahhab sought to rid Islam of what he deemed ‘corruptions’, opposing mysticism, rationalism and Shi’ism. If a Muslim weren’t a ‘true believer’ according to his strict standards, he would have no hesitation in calling that Muslim an infidel and such a judgment meant that they could be killed.  His writings repeatedly refer to jurists who did not fall within his understanding of Islam as “devils” or “spawns of Satan”.  ‘Abd al Wahhab’ held that the juristic tradition spanning over many centuries (bar a handful of jurists) was corrupt and heretical.  All jurists who were not strict literalists and employed reason in their jurisprudence were by default considered heretics (see my article on Intellectual apostasy). It is documented that ‘Abd al-Wahhab and his followers even ordered the execution or assassination of large number of jurists with whom they disagreed with.  Wahhabism by definition is fervently sectarian and divisive.   In similar fashion, Haddad follows suit.  He considers the beliefs of the Asharite and Maturidi schools of theology (which make up the majority of Muslims past and present) heretical and yet he claims to represent mainstream Islam   Given the origins of Wahabism and its schismatic nature, it is extremely ironic that he speaks of those who took part in the Panorama documentary in terms of division and seduction and a attack on Mainstream Islam.  They, Haddad and his followers have a right to practise their religion how they deem fit.  However, the claim he represents mainstream Islam is simply not true.

Probably the most disturbing part of his response is his exploitation of Nahid Almanea’s death, who was murdered in an unprovoked attack.  His point here is to say that if we demonize everyday ‘orthodox’ Muslim practice then every day Muslims will be attacked for their normative Islamic practices.  Firstly, Haddad makes a comment regarding Nahid Almanea’s appearance, namely that she was wearing the Hijab and Islamic dress.  But I must point out here that the documentary did not regard Muslims who wear the Hijab as extreme in any shape of form. This poor example is gratuitously playing on Muslim sensibilities.  The documentary was about non-violent extremist views and attitudes that act as a precursor to violent extremism.   Moreover, Islamophobes aren’t as selective as Haddad makes out.  I have personally interviewed dozens of Muslims across a spectrum of practicing degrees who have been victims of Islamophobia and anti Muslim hate crime.   One Muslim sister, who comes to mind, didn’t even wear the Hijab. She was incessantly bullied at work for months on end for simply having a Muslim name.  Also, his argument that normative Islam is being labeled as ‘extreme’ and as a result Muslims who practice orthodox Islam are becoming victims of Islamophobia is flawed. Haddad simply begs the question here, and assumes that his views and practices are wholly representative of orthodox/mainstream Islam. Surely it’s important that he prove his mainstream credentials before concocting such an emotive ‘argument’ about demonization of normative Muslim practice? Using the example of segregation is hardly the hallmark of mainstream Islam, especially the way in which Haddad understands it. Thus, the main thrust of his argument that Panorama presenting genuine orthodox Islamic beliefs as criminal and that it fuels Islamophobia simply breaks down.

Furthermore, I very much doubt Islamophobic attacks spiked after the Panorama documentary.  They do however increase when Muslim extremism rears its ugly head. Islamophobia is fueled by ignorance, hatred and fear.  Our part in these precarious times is to minimize that ignorance by representing Islam in its true light and making a clear distinction from extremism, which evidently fuels Islamophobia.

Intellectual Apostasy

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One often hears Islam described as the fastest growing religion, hailed as such by some Muslim preachers or expressed in the form of hysterical outcry by those who want to stir up political tensions. From a global perceptive, this claim seems highly unlikely given the millions of converts to Christianity through well-funded missionary work in Africa and China. However, the more pertinent question one should ask, is what particular type or brand of Islam is growing? Based on my own observations, a particular brand of Islam, with a disproportionate influence compared to its followers, seems to have hegemony. Lacking the faithfulness to the Islamic message, it is at odds with its rich and diverse intellectual heritage. Such a brand of Islam propagated by ‘Dawah’ originators, who have a significant presence within university campuses, seeks to educate by arguing that Islam is a rational religion supported by intellectual and logical arguments. This argumentation often takes the form of contemporary religious philosophy, drawing on Western Christian philosophers, and specifically arguments for the existence of God. It is argued that with unfettered reason and logic one will be led to believing in God. Such arguments when presented adequately, although in most cases crudely understood and expressed, provide Muslims with the intellectual grounding for their belief, avoiding the frivolity of blind faith, which incidentally is against the teaching of the Quran. Thus, the effect of rational grounding is to provide Muslims with a strong sense of self-esteem and confidence in their religion. When I spoke at the American university of Beirut several years ago, I encountered many Muslims who were confused and insecure about their faith. But once familiar with rational arguments of this nature, I noticed a renewal of confidence. My own journey was in fact quite similar. When I first encountered this approach many years ago, the fact that Islam could be an intellectual endeavor had a resounding effect on me, which was itself an impetus to commit and practice Islam more diligently.

So where is the problem? The issue is that the intellectual rigor that is effective in providing the intellectual basis for Islamic belief is immediately stifled once someone accepts the Islamic faith, and that is where I part intellectual ways with these preachers. It is expected that the perfectly sound reasoning once used to establish grounds for becoming Muslim, should then be abandoned once within, in internal discussions pertaining to Islamic thought, theology, law and politics. Once you enter Islam you have to leave your brain and intellect at the door in an act I describe as a form of intellectual apostasy. Intellectual consistency and precision in thinking within the faith is currently virtually non-existent, which has had disastrous effects on our community. Such a state of affairs leads to the belief and practice of absurd views and the adoption of morally reprehensible laws, driven by a blind obedience, which is deemed virtuous and honorable.   When the intellect is killed by overstating the notion of obedience propped up by puritanical aphorisms, such as “The rule is for God only “ or in similar vain “human minds are limited, thus only God can decide on law”, this leads us to a religion of simplism. Traditional Islam understood that there is a great degree of personal agency involved in determining Islamic law which is drastically understated today due to its over simplification. Let us not forget that similar voices criticised and assassinated Imam Ali, the cousin of the prophet for allegedly not following God’s word! The conflict between Imam Ali and the Khawarij mirrors the struggle that exists in our time, between those who understand correctly the indeterminable nature of scripture which gives a significant role to human agency (the realm of the intellectual engagement), and those who deny human agency in the application of laws, with a fanatical and unduly literal application of scripture. As Khalid Abou El Fadl argues, the traditional premises upon which Islamic law was constructed, and which significantly contributed to the flourishing of Islamic civilization, have since been disintegrated and discarded. What we have now is a puritanical Islam, whereby Muslims who are engaged in complex, subtle ethical discussions are reduced to what he calls “Hadith hurlers”. Muslim preachers, ignorant of the discipline of ethics, speak on ethical matters by merely regurgitating a plethora of decontextualised hadiths, which ultimately amounts to them spouting views, which cannot be morally or rationally defended. The hallmark of a true ‘scholar’ then becomes the absurdity of his views.   No better example of this is current gender related issues, which demonstrate the unintelligibility and unethical nature of this particular brand of Islam.   In this area as well as others, such an Islam is completely intellectually handicapped with an intellectual gap which prevents contemporary Islamic thought from being part of any credible debate on ethics, in fields ranging from philosophy, sociology, psychology and biology.

Recently a number of academics and experts from Saudi Arabia underlined the need for serious efforts to contain atheism within the Kingdom. Perhaps those who are leaving the faith are those who experience conflict between their faith and moral imperatives, lacking sound ethical answers, this results in them leaving the faith.

A further point worth considering – although Islam may be the fastest growing religion, how many new converts actually retain their faith? Given the overly restrictive brand of Islam that new converts are exposed to, I would not be surprised if the numbers were considerably low. There are reasons to believe that apostasy is a growing phenomenon, but it is important to acknowledge that a greater concern is intellectual apostasy committed within the faith, which itself provides grounds for apostasy from the faith.

Surely, the application of intellectual rigor must be consistent throughout the Islamic faith and not be discarded once one enters the fold. If we claim to seek truth then regardless of whether it involves external or internal discussions, truth should prime over everything. Without such integrity, we leave ourselves open to accepting all sorts of things. The famous aphorism by Samuel Taylor Coleridge aptly conveys this, “He who begins by loving Christianity better than Truth, will proceed by loving his own sect or Church better than Christianity, and end loving himself better than all.”

Regrettably, there are Muslim preachers who act as intellectual front men, recruiting for a brand of Islam that demands intellectual apostasy when entering the faith, a faith far removed from its past, and which is void of intellectual coherence, intelligence and ethical credibility.

 

Muslim-tribalism

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Renewal and reform are important dimensions of the historical experience of the Islamic world. Within this historical experience we can see a lengthy tradition of reform, which takes the form of a special focus on the purification and the revival of the fundamentals of the Islamic faith. An essential part of this renewal requires going against the tide and taking on the Goliath of the dominant views within a community.  Someone once said that the trouble with most of us is that we’d rather be ruined by praise than saved by criticism.   When I read this quote it resonated with me. Throughout my experience with the Muslim community, spanning over a decade, I have noticed those who excel within the community are those who massage the ego of the community and who often perpetuate its ignorance. But those who recognize its short falls and see worrying fringe elements within the community are treated with scorn and ostracized. There currently exists a particular brand of Islam that dominates the ‘practicing’ Muslim spectrum. On being criticized, it seeks to isolate individuals by promoting identity politics and the politics of the “other” in order to keep people from recognizing just how bereft of substance the said group actually is. Labels such as, “Modernist”, “Sellout”, “deviant” have always been a powerful tool to suppress alternative voices. Such delineations serve to undermine the willingness to challenge the Muslim status quo, as individuals fear being termed “other” and banished from the group.

Some view the call for introspection and reflection with suspicion and resentment. In light of rising anti Muslim sentiments, calls for introspection are often seen as attempts to appease the West or bend Islam to fit with ‘Western values’. It’s quite easy to empathize with the concern given the undeniable anti Muslim rhetoric that has permeated every aspect of society. However, the knee jerk insular reaction to such a threat is costing the Muslims greatly. Our current reaction might be dubbed a form of Muslim-tribalism. A classic example of such a mentality is when news reached about Boko Haram kidnapping over 200 girls and some prominent Muslims responded with condemnation. Those Muslims were treated as Western appeasers by some Muslim hardliners, who sought to point out that West was also guilty of crimes i.e drone attacks killing civilians. On social media you will notice an unspoken policy among puritanical Muslims who will not openly criticise or condemn Muslims, not matter how badly they may have behaved or how at odds their actions might be with Islamic ideals.   I recall one person saying “I wont condemn Boko Haram until Obama condemns drone attacks in Pakistan” or on another occasion a blogger stated, “I don’t usually condemn the actions of Muslims given the current situation Muslims are in, but on this occasion I have to condemn the actions of Boko Haram”. Now, I’m not suggesting the Muslims who argue in this way necessarily believe that the actions of the likes of Boko Haram are justified because of the actions of the US, however, whether intentionally or not, these counter examples of Western war crimes are somehow used in an attempt to vindicate the community. Ask yourself this, why should it make a difference to our perception of events whether Obama lives by moral standards or not, in what way should that affect our own moral integrity? Why would it make a difference what situation Muslims are in, whether Muslims are under fire or not? Isn’t right, right and wrong, wrong? Our moral compass isn’t determined by how other people live and whether they subscribe to moral standards. Does not the Quran command that we do not transgress even when we are angry? Worryingly, there seems to be this notion of unwavering support for ‘my community whether right or wrong’ developing. But this strikes at the heart of the Islamic message. Islam came at a time where tribalism was the structure of the society, with bonding based on the value of the tribe and the primary focus being on loyalty and identity. Each member had to subordinate his or her personal needs and desires to the well-being of the group and fight to the death if necessary, to ensure survival. If a person was killed or injured by members of another tribe regardless of whether they were innocent or not, any member of that tribe could be killed or injured in retribution. The act of retribution is a form of reclaiming or leveling the honour of the tribe. The late Ayn Rand described tribalism as an anti-conceptual mentality. Quite an apt description I would say. Where is the rationale in taking revenge on a random person simply because of an affiliation to a particular tribe? Simply said, there is none at all. One can identify current similarities with Muslim-tribal mentalities.   What is the rational link between US drone attacks killing innocent civilians, and the actions of Muslim extremists like Boko Haram? The answer is none, its basis isn’t conceptual, but tribal.   This juxtaposition of western war crimes with crimes by extremist Muslims, simply functions in a tribal vein, much like the arbitrary and non conceptual basis for taking revenge on a random member of a tribe to seek revenge. It’s a subtle attempt to redeem the honor of the Muslim community and establish loyalty to the group. The danger here is that we lose sight of Islamic principles in an attempt to ‘defend’ Muslims and lose any ethical credibility. This blind identification with one’s Islamic identity or brotherhood is fundamentally at odds with a major tradition in moral philosophy, which understands morality as essentially universal and impartial, which rules out local, partial attachment and loyalty. This type of Muslim-tribalism thinking is a type of group egoism, a morally arbitrary partiality to “one’s own”, at odds with demands of justice, which is by nature, universal. The Quran commands that we stand out firmly for justice emphatically stating “even if it be against yourselves, your parents, and your relatives, or whether it is against the rich or the poor…”. The message here was revolutionary at the time of the Prophet Mohammed. Mercy, generosity and justice were not just for your tribe, but for all. The greatest challenge for our community is to live by the standards of this very verse.

One other powerful tool to thwart criticism is the appeal to “Muslim unity”. Often Muslims, many of them unaware of the schisms that exist within, try to quash critical discussions of the community, which are seen as divisive, by appealing to the concept of Ummah. Embedded within this term is the notion of the unity of Muslims. What I would argue is that this obligation of unity is misplaced. It seems to be unity for the sake of unity at the expense of truth and justice. Unity should never supersede one’s integrity. After the death of the prophet , a dispute arose concerning the assassination of the third caliph, Uthman. Two camps were formed in response. Ali, the cousin of the prophet, was on one side and on the other, two of the prophet’s prominent companions Talha and al-Zubayr who were supported by ‘A’isha, the prophet’s wife. This conflict divided the community and resulted in Islam’s first civil war. Were the companions, cousin and wife of the prophet not aware of this blind unity that we hear some Muslims calling for today? The answer is that if it had existed the companions of the prophet would have lived by it. It is clear that their understanding of Muslim unity was that unity is never at the expense of what one believes to be true or just. The Quran says that our Ummah is underpinned not simply by Muslim affiliation, but by its ideals. The Quran describes the Ummah as “the best community ever brought forth for mankind (in that) you command the proper and forbid the improper and believe in God.”

It’s easy to lose sight of one’s moral standards in adversity. But if we lose our moral integrity, as a community we lose ethical credibility internally and externally. As Ralph W Emerson quite poignantly said “Let me never fall into the vulgar mistake of dreaming that I am persecuted whenever I am contradicted.”