Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The problem with moderate Muslims

On March 23, 2013, members of Alif Laam Meem, a national Muslim fraternity based at the University of Texas at Dallas, stood up against domestic violence as Muslims and as men of Dallas.

For the past six month the president of the U.S has took it upon himself to defend Islam as a religion and a culture. One State Department spokesperson made a statement suggesting that “lack of job opportunities” is a major reason for beheadings and cruel violence. All of this is not just shocking because of how irrelevant it is, but it’s shocking because the will to avoid addressing the problem is too big that the president of the United States personally had to deviate from his federal job description and give speeches about what Islam is and what it is not. Our desire to reassure ourselves that all people as nice as us is so great that we are changing the ways we conduct our business. That is why I want to share some thoughts on the issue of Islam and Islamic moderation.

To deny the existence of moderate Muslims is ,beyond any reasonable doubt, an anti-Muslim prejudice. Not only that but it’s most certainly destructive to any efforts to counter Islamic extremism. A world with no moderate Muslims is inconceivable. Check out these long quotes from an open letter from Ani Zonneveld, a Malaysian-born Muslim, published on AlJazeerawebsite:

“I was raised in a harmonious interracial and interfaith society that accepted and respected other religious practices.. Saudi Arabia started exporting its Wahhabi ideology in the 1970s, and it spread around the world, turning existing interpretations of Islam into one that is dogmatic and violent. We cannot continue on this path of religious-based mayhem in the name of Islam. The Muslim world needs a change…
..As a child, I remember celebrating Mawlid — the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday — with uplifting songs, prayers and even a parade. Now it is taboo to observe Mawlid even in America, and adherents to the Wahhabi brand of Islam would rather emphasize his death…
..When I was growing up, weddings and community events were colorful and featured music and dance, without segregating the sexes. This is no longer the case in many Muslim communities. Music, dance and unsegregated gatherings are deemed haram, or forbidden. Artistic expressions must be Sharia-compliant, meaning no depiction of humans or animals..
..The Quran liberated women from subhuman status, gave us rights to choose whom to marry, to work, to be in leadership positions and to ultimately live in full dignity. And yet in 2015, Wahhabi imams have relegated women to subhuman status by allowing husbands to cane their wives into obedience and promoting a version of Sharia that permits forced and child marriages and condones honor killings. Women have become sexual objects through forced veiling, which makes our voices, skin, hair and faces off limits, and even a handshake is deemed a potentially arousing sexual experience.”

This is one of the most honest Muslim self-criticism pieces I have read. It is sincere, genuine, authentic and above all it is unbiased and it is the work of a moderate Muslim. However, it is obvious that those words raise the same concerns I have: the majority of the Muslim world is not under the influence of a moderate version of Islam but rather a very extreme, violent one. I was born and raised in Egypt, thousands of miles from Malaysia, and I have an almost identical experience with the rapid radicalization of the Egyptian society. There are moderate Muslims but it should be clear at this point that they are not as influential as the extremists. It should be clear that advocates of reform in the Muslim world are as marginalized and persecuted as any other non-Muslim minority. One clear proof of that can be seen in the fact that many if not most such Muslims, like Mr. Zonneveld or me personally, do not actually reside in their home countries but in the western world due to the fact that many parts of the Muslim world are extremely intolerant towards reform and criticism.

In my childhood I was told that every day that passes on the Islamic nation without a caliphate is a sin. That the failures and miseries of the Muslim world started the moment we gave up conquests and wars against the infidels. That our prosperity depends on conquering new lands, converting new believers, looting new resources and enslaving more women. I was taught that a Jew is essentially a demon in flesh and that it is our destiny as good Muslims to kill them all. I was regularly fueled by battle stories and stories of lethal feuds of seventh century Arabia. It was not just me, a small child in Cairo, who was raised with these great apocalyptic prophecies, it was also so many people from all around the globe.

In Nazi Germany, Adolf Hitler rose to power, conducted rapid and drastic changes to German society, declared war on the world and fought, all while enjoying the support of the majority of the German people. In the United States, some of the earliest public opinion polls in the 1940s found that an overwhelming majority (about two-thirds) of whites were willing to support racial segregation. Similar polls from South Africa, with much closer dates, suggest that the vast majority of the white population was in support of total white domination and apartheid. In a much earlier time of history, 14th century European Christians were avid supporters of witch hunting, inquisitions, public executions, anti-Semitism and a verity of extreme cruelty. Try to imagine a young European couple happily taking their little children to watch the latest heretics torching techniques and encouraging them to smell the burning flesh; that was 14th century Europe. This is no myth, no phobia, it is history.

The bottom line is; it is quite possible, at one point of history, to have an entire nation dominated by some very bad ideas. We have seen it before and we are seeing it today. For the west now to deny this historical fact and pretend that the majority of people are always naturally sane, rational, peace loving hippies is hypocritical, misleading and dishonest. It is an ugly lie that offends our intelligence. We have a long history of the major human consensus to persecute women, Jews, Gypsies and homosexuals. Thus, it is quite possible — at least theoretically — for a significant portion or even the majority of the world’s Muslim population (estimated to be over 1.5 billion) to be anti-Semitic, homophobic and in sympathy with violence and even Islamic totalitarianism.

Many parts of the Muslim world are intolerant towards free speech, criticism and reform. Human rights are not observed in most of the Muslim world; women’s rights, homosexual rights, minority rights, freedom of speech, freedom of expression, freedom of belief..etc. are things that the majority of non-violent Muslims do not observe. Execution of apostates, women who are not allowed to drive, sexual segregation, persecution of liberals and journalists, homosexual imprisonment, and persecution of non-Muslim minorities are all common themes almost in all Muslim countries. Many Muslim countries use public beheadings, hangings, lashings, stonings and chopping of limbs as an accepted form of punishment.

While the vast majority of Muslims may frown upon ISIS and Al Qaeda and may be horrified by their acts, they will still approve of many human rights abuses. The majority of the world Muslim population believe that the cartoonists who ridicule Muhammad should be prosecuted. Many Muslim countries carry death penalties for any similar heresy action because they simply do not believe in freedom of speech. There is a Muslim consensus that any acts of violence against Israel, including suicide bombers in buses, are justified if not encouraged. Our acceptance or denial of those facts does not affect the reality we are all living; the Muslim world is dominated by bad ideas and bad beliefs. The majority of Muslims have no principle objections to application of extreme violence, subjection of women and minorities, prosecuting if not killing homosexuals and confiscating personal freedoms.

My argument is, we are using the label “moderate” for everyone who is not trying to kill us regardless of that person’s actual views. We are in a very bad situation to the extent that we have confused moderation with self-interest. The majority of the Muslim world may not be moderate, but rather acting in its daily life from a purely self-interested point of view. This is a very good thing. We should encourage all Muslims to act and preserve their self-interests. But we should not lie to them about the nature of their religious ideas.

One of my other concerns regarding moderate Muslims is their response to Islamic terrorism. Whenever the issue of Islamic extremism arises, the first reaction of moderate Muslims is not to start an honest debate and reform in their religion but to defend Islam and Muslims. Moderate Muslims are obsessed with slogans like “the religion of peace” more than they care about facing the terrorists emerging from their own communities. Moderate Muslims rush to warn about Islamophobia and unjust western prejudice against Muslims. Almost in every single occasion that Islamic terrorism is mentioned, Muslims’ first action is to defend their faith. They assert over and over how peaceful and beautiful Islam is. They are obsessed with their religion and care about it more than they care about stopping murder in its name. It should be clear that this kind of obsession is just another form of fundamentalism. The time has come to talk about how unhelpful and unhealthy their constant obsession with Islam is. Those Muslims need to know that it is more important right now to direct their efforts inside their communities to battle extremism than to polish the image of a faith soaked in blood. Constantly using the rhetoric of Islamophobia and defending their faith as if it was under attack does not help us to promote peace but actually makes the job of terrorist recruiters easier.

We can all agree that prejudice against Muslims is indeed a form of unacceptable discrimination, but moderate Muslims should not try to stifle criticism of their religion by raising the racism card. Many Muslims are responsible for creating an environment of intimidation and social blackmail, using the alleged charges of Islamophobia to immediately dismiss any criticism. We should be clear and honest to our Muslim friends; Islam and its prophet are just other figures in the world of religious fascinations and they are not above criticism and ridiculing and this is nonnegotiable.

Recently we have been hearing the argument, sometimes from the highest figures of the U.S government, that we should not criticize the doctrine of Islam in a way that points out its inherent violence because that is the exact point organizations like ISIS are trying to convince Muslims with. The point is we should not help terrorists in convincing Muslims that Islam is violent. I have to say that this is the most twisted acrobatic irrational logic I have ever heard. I think a truly moderate sane person, when told that his god promotes and enjoys public beheadings, should do one of two things; either dismiss the cruel claims about his god as untrue or dismiss his whole religion. The victims of terrorism should not be blamed for the crimes being committed against them. Our intellectual freedom should not be taken hostage so moderate Muslims won’t break bad. What kind of logic is that? I assume that any peaceful moderate person should remain so regardless of what anyone says on TV or in a newspaper or a coffeehouse about a sixth century belief system. Otherwise, the words “peaceful” and “moderate” simply mean “I will be nice as long as you do not hurt my feelings.” Personally I find this closer to psychopathy than moderation.

If we are sincere about solving this pressing global issue, then we should be honest and truthful. We can’t fight cruel terrorists while we ally ourselves with people who commit similar atrocities but have more oil. We can’t allow ourselves to deceive our Muslim friends that it is their right to oppose free speech, LGBT rights, women’s rights etc. Moderate Muslims should not be part of the problem, they should be the solution. Islamic extremism will not be “degraded and ultimately destroyed” unless it is Muslims themselves who fight it. Being obsessed with religion is not a proper response and we should be honest and clear about that. I am aware of the fact that all I’m sharing is tough and not easy to do, but I can assure you that closing our eyes to reality will do us no good. Only acknowledging it will allow us to take our first steps toward a profound and desperately needed reform.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

The Good, the Bad and the Moderate

Last week a group of students in Swarthmore College prevented me from talking or reasoning with them, or with the audience. It was sad to see young students unable to participate in a peaceful argument. I’m also saddened that we have missed on an opportunity to enjoy a constructive debate about our world, which is something I always enjoy. Therefore, I have decided to imagine that our debate did take place and was not interrupted by an irresponsible burst of emotional hostility. I will assume that what I imagine is a common argument was made, and I will try to answer.

One of the corner stone arguments of the anti-Israel/pro-Islamic activists who come from Muslim communities or leftist activism, is that the homicidal apocalyptic phenomena which is coming from a tiny radical minority in the Middle East, is nothing more than a response to the combination of brutal inhumane Israeli occupation, merciless American imperialism, and political economic western backed tyrannies. Although, such opinions should not sound any less defective, misleading, and insufficient than the opinion that satirist cartoonists bring their own death by ridiculing people most holy beliefs. However, for the sake of the argument  I would like to ask my readers to join me on the experimental thought that all of this is absolutely true and correct. That the incredible cruelty that we witness now on daily basis, and that nearly half a century of Islamic terrorism targeting primarily Jews, Christians, Westerners and Muslims themselves, is nothing but a reaction to an equal western barbarism.

There is nothing intrinsically bad with the current mainstream Islamic tradition or the mainstream culture of Muslims. It is the atrocities committed by Israel and the west which force an inherently good culture to produce some of the worst mass murderers known to the modern world. Nevertheless, the majority of Arabs and Muslims are as peaceful as anyone else, and driven by the same desires and fears as anyone one of their fellow humans. Any general accusations, or even hinting that Islam or Muslim culture is somewhat dominated by some bad ideas should be instantly labeled as racist and Islamophobic. In the light of this assumption I would like to examine some of the events took place last week:
Last week some individuals of the extremely insignificant Islamic radical minority, which does not by any means represent the true peaceful loving nature of main stream Islam, have publicly executed a Jordanian pilot, burning him alive in an astonishing demonstration of barbarity. It is naturally expected from the moderate Muslim majority to publicly denounce and condemn such abhorrent acts of extreme cruelty, which they did. Al Azhar University in Cairo, widely held to be the capital and chief center of moderate Sunni Islam, issued a statement denouncing and condemning the horrific act and claiming that those who performed it are indeed no part of the Islamic faith. Al Azhar added that the monstrous fighters of ISIS –monstrous indeed no doubt- “require the punishment mentioned in the Koran for these corrupt oppressors whofight against God and his prophet: killing, crucifixion or chopping of thelimbs." This of course came shortly after Egypt president Sisi was globally celebrated for publicly demanding “a revolution in religion” and a “reform of Islam”.

Al Azhar is significant, and we should pay attention to this. Al Azhar is the oldest most prestigious center of Islamic learning in the world. It is held to be the center of Islamic modernity in its war on radicalism. It has students from every country in the world, and it is one of the main reasons Obama chose Cairo to be his podium for addressing the Muslim world in his landmark New Beginning speech in 2009. The entry for Al Azhar University in The Encyclopedia Britannica states that it is “chief centre of Islamic and Arabic learning in the world”.  Obama described Al Azhar as “abeacon of Islamic learning.. that carried the lightof learning through so many centuries”  . The bottom line is the legitimacy of Al Azhar theological and legal opinions is indisputable to the majority of the Muslim world –assuming the majority follows moderate Al Azhar and not the insane minority. Now let’s again examine their statement “requires the punishment mentioned in the Koran for these corrupt oppressors who fight against God and his prophet: killing, crucifixion or chopping of the limbs.” I don’t know about you, but I personally have a problem here. You see, crucifying people and chopping of body parts is not exactly my idea of peace and moderation. We are now wise enough to know that such acts of extreme cruelty is not accepted in any cultural conext any more by any normative rationale. This beacon of moderate Islam has miserably failed to establish an objection to extreme cruelty and violence. They actually did the absolute opposite as they established the theological ground for killing, crucifying, and chopping of limbs of others given they are convicted with being “corrupt oppressors”. Think about this for a moment; the chief center for Islamic learning globally and what is held to be the most moderate Islamic institution is incapable in condemning brutality and barbarity without calling for applying them simultaneously. They are not just self-contradictory, but the capital of Sunni Islam scholarship has no principle objection to applying violence and public extreme cruelty –as it is the case with crucifixion- to those which are seen as corrupt oppressors, let them be Israelis, Americans, Muslim brothers or blasphemous cartoonists. It is needless to say that any attempt to interpret “corrupt oppressor” is exactly what opens the wide gates of jihad depending on any political conflict you are interested in, and one does not need to think too hard to conclude that taking down towers, a barrage of rockets from Gaza, bombing of buses and pizza restaurants, as well as stabbings in public transportation are merely a variation of the methods used to deliver justice to those who deserve it. You can split a few hairs here and there, and try to argue about who qualifies to be labeled as a “corrupt oppressor”, but it will still be left for the perpetrators own judgment of who is.

Moderate Al Azhar quite successfully has refuted all our presuppositions about the good peaceful ideology, the small bad radical minority, and the moderate majority in just one statement. Al Azhar is telling us here that there is nothing America, Israel, or the infidel west can do to force the main stream Islamic tradition to turn cruel and violent, violence is already there waiting for any person with the right label to provoke it. If our passionate anti-Zionist anti-Imperialist activists were wrong about that, why should they be right about bad Israel and tyrant America? This again is to remind us that many of irrational pro-Islamic and anti-Zionist activism is out there to protect Islam, and not Muslims, and even in many cases can be seen accurately as camouflaged anti-Semitism.

One does not need to look too far in order to find some evidence of the great consequential moral gap between the tradition which produced the statement of Al Azhar and the evil western civilization. The very recent American response to the CIA torture report should serve that purpose perfectly. The American people consensus consider physical torture  –which to no extent was near crucifixion or chopping of limbs- of the same monstrous terrorists to be a dark stain on American values, American honor, and the American flag. You should not search too much in Israeli public media to find the same harsh and sincere self-criticism of many of Israeli policies. It is my opinion that this huge moral gap accounts for almost all the miseries of the Middle East. Regardless of what America, Israel, or the west does. Extreme application of violence is an integral part of the doctrine of those extremists as well as many of those who we label moderates.

For the past three months or so the government of moderate Sisi and home of enlightened Al Azhar, has systematically engaged in the business of hunting, arresting, publicly humiliating, and imprisoning homosexual Egyptians.  Simultaneously, a stronger more violent state sponsored campaign was launched on atheists. Not exactly what the west had in mind regarding Sisi’s “reform of Islam” and “revolution in religion” don’t you think? Last week I was screamed at, cursed at, and even was successfully prevented from speaking at Swarthmore College by people who did not agree to what I was saying. Some of them fit the typical idea of the unveiled, perfect English speaking, moderate Muslim young women who live and study in the west. Similar “moderates” failed to do the same during my speech at Temple University the next day. Some of them sadly were students of journalism. This, along with the open call for crucifixion, chopping limbs, and Sisi's moral policing should make one thing very clear; these people have no clue as to what constitutes civil society. Blaming ourselves and Israel for everything that goes wrong in the world, accompanied with some wishful thinking towards the “culture and religion of peace”, may make us feel better and hopeful, however it can’t stand in the face of the very obvious truth, that this major culture which is controlling huge parts of the developing world has been taken over and even dominated by some very bad ideas, and they, not us, and certainly not Israel, are the reason why we expect to see cruel and horrific deaths of multiple people the next time we look at news.

Assuming that Israel and the west made all the necessary accommodations and concessions to the warriors of the Islamic world, would peace be achieved with a society whose only debate about violence is about determining who deserves his body parts to be chopped off? Is such a society capable of making peace? More importantly, are they capable of maintaining peace? We should know with certainty that crucifixions, limbs mutilation, women oppression, sexual repression, atheist hunting, systematic human rights violations, speech restrictions, and anti-Semitism will indeed cause many things, but not peace.