Political Leaders Encouraging Islamic Extremism

I live in a land where my right-wing political leaders openly and unabashedly encourage the Muslim population to hate and kill non-Muslims. They explain that it is my duty to hate and to act violently against non-Muslims until they accept Sharia Law. For those of us that are too weak-hearted or Westernized to do, they assure us that we will come around eventually.

Every major media outlet in my country affords them endless airtime to preach this message of hate.  I’m constantly told by my political leaders that “Islam hates [them]” and that it is an Islamic imperative to wage “civilizational Jihad” against the West. Even some of the religious leaders on the Right have been so explict as to say that Islam is at war with the world.  The message of hate that seemed pervasive in the Islamic State now seems to be inundating my country as well.

Meanwhile, the voices that preach peace, forbearance, patience, civility, and patriotism are rarely heard. The radial, religious-political firebrands in my country command too much control to allow these messages of peace to be heard. Their voices of anger and hate drown out the voices of sympathy, while claiming that the voices of anger speak representatively of Muslims and these voices of peace do not.

So I’ve turned off the TV. I don’t have cable. I don’t watch CNN, FoxNews, or MSNBC. I’m tired of being told that it is my duty to kill and murder. When I stay away from watching the news, I can focus more on the general peace that my Muslim community enjoys with our surrounding non-Muslim community. I can more clearly hear my local religious leaders, at every mosque across the country I’ve ever attended, ever, continue to explain, with proofs from the Quran and the traditions of the Prophet Muhammad, that Islam seeks peace, even when there is fighting, and that if there is fighting that it is our duty to drive to peace at any possibility and as early as possible. I can focus on the messages from these people that have spent much of their time and energy studying at respected, historical, Islamic institutions, and have lived in the United States for years. I can tune-out these messages from these laymen and politically motivated demagogues in the US and the IS who wish to use anger and discontent as their motivator rather than unity, peace, and compassion.

Just as there are right-wing Constitutionalists that espouse ideas of American governance far outside of the mainstream, who are widely-considered flatly wrong despite their ability to quote historical texts and history, such is the case for far right Islamic (or anti-Islamic) extremists. The fact is clear that most Muslims aren’t at war with anyone except those that are killing them (i.e. extremists). Between every Belgian and Parisian act of terrorism are dozens perpetrated against Muslims by those same perpetrators and ideologies. The solution isn’t as simple as “they need to turn them in.” That would be convenient if we all knew who that person was that ever wanted to commit a murder. It would be convenient if we all knew the tipping point from being angry about a situation and being violent about a situation. Yet, after all of my years of attending the mosque, going to events, talking with and hanging out with a wide range of Muslims, I’ve never had anyone even joke about committing an act of terrorism. While I am only one person, I have no reason to think I am any different from most Muslims or people in general.

San Bernardino Terrorism

Oh wait, this isn’t terrorism. No Muslims. We don’t know yet what group or ideology is in play, but so far, without any scent of Muslims there can’t be any terrorism. Funny how the media says it quite plainly: “We don’t know yet if this is an act of terrorism.” I’m sure all of those wounded and dead weren’t being terrorized as bullets were flying, fearing for their lives. They were scared, perhaps, but not terrorized. I’m sure they were comforted with thoughts of “I’m bleeding to death, but thank God it’s not Muslims that shot me.”

This is amazingly crazy. We’re told to be fearful and paranoid against a group of people that are statistically peaceful in the US (yes, Muslims – as judged by crime stats, mass shootings, incidents of terrorism based on FBI metrics, and any other metric you want) but we don’t think anything of the ubiquity of guns and the ease of which to procure them.

Our national conversation isn’t about the under-funded Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (the ATF) that is responsible for enforcing many of our gun laws. Instead, we allow ourselves to get caught up on whether to enact more legislation (there’s already plenty; there’s just insufficient funding to enforce). We could pass legislation all day but if we don’t fund anyone to enforce our laws then, like a speed limit, it’ll often be broken with impunity.

Since I’m writing this before we know much about the events that transpired today, we could very well find out that it was a few extremist Muslims with an extremist agenda. What I am pointing out right now is media bias; suddenly and unabashedly, the shootings today will be revised into an act of terrorism. The discussion that could have been on guns will then focus on the 1-2% of the American population that is Muslim. We’ll pick on that group and disregard the actual root causes, means, and mechanisms that allow this event to happen. And if the wildest extremist fantasy of getting rid of all Muslims were to come true then all you’ve done is fix 2 of the 355 mass shootings that have happened in the US this year. If only we can get rid of all white, black, and Latino people as well, then we’d take care of the other 353 mass shootings.

Playing the odds, it may be appropriate to point out that White Americans are the biggest terrorist threat in the US. If that makes anyone reading this angry, then your response was also predictable. At this point, one can either continue to believe that Muslims are America’s biggest terrorist threat or one can pay attention to the data and address the quantitatively higher risk.

This isn’t about blaming white Americans or any ethnic or religious group specifically. This is about looking at data and acting soberly. There are gun and gang problems in our cities. There have been incidents of mass shootings every day in the US. All of these have involved people of various ethnic groups. The point that this blog is making is that Muslims, statistically, are far from the biggest internal or external threat to anyone’s safety in the US.

The Problem with Church and State

I have a cousin who recently graduated from Moody Bible Institute. For background, my family consists of some Christian reverends and preachers as well as my more immediate Muslim side and assorted cousins. We enjoy getting on religious topics every now and then so I was happy to have a resource such as my cousin that I may contact in regard to deeper Christian theological questions. However, I’m also a bit dismayed. I asked him under what authority was Mr. Moody able to start and grow his own Bible institute; teaching and preaching the bible as he understood it. The Moody Bible Institute’s website is absent of any mention of formal Bible training. It seems he was a fervent and passionate preacher and traveled around with his message. I’m sure there’s more depth to it than that but my dismay is all the same; any number of people can be passionate about the message in the Bible and I can be OK with that if the only question were a matter of how much zeal a person can speak of Jesus and their interpretation of the Bible.

However, what I, and many others, are not OK with is treating a person’s interpretation of the Bible as the definitive interpretation of law. Without any authority, or formal education, or juristic tradition, no one should be able to take their interpretation of the Bible as the law by which everyone must abide.  This isn’t to diminish the messages in the Bible or even of its legal requirements. This is specifically a message about Protestant Christianity. In contrast, Catholicism and Judaism, using a similar text, do have legal and juristic traditions attached to them. This is not to say I think they’re right; rather, there is structure, method, and sobriety, not just passion and zeal.

Even then, there are inconsistencies. The common justification for Christians not having the same prohibition on pork as found against Jews elsewhere in the Bible is that Jesus had done away with those laws. If that is the case, then so goes prohibitions on homosexuality, adultery, dress codes, working on the sabbath, charging interest, and whatever other law found in the Old Testament. All you’re left with is messages of love and compassion but no laws.

Thus, there’s a logical and practical inconsistency for most who clamor for closer integration of Church and State or who demand to have some Biblical laws applied to their lives (and others’ lives) but not all or most Biblical laws. This is also why it might appear that Jews and Muslims get some sort of special treatment in applying their religious laws to themselves in their worldly matters (note: we’re not trying to apply them on everyone; just wanting to carve out some exceptions for us). We’re actually trying to follow the laws and standards found in our religious texts and traditions. There are some Christian groups that do so as well, but again, Protestantism, by definition, threw out the Catholic mode of operation, which largely threw out the Jewish mode of operation.

Finally, unless one wishes to conveniently dismiss large portions of European history, it should be safe to say that removing political power from the Catholic Church has been good for most of humanity. But with that also meant creating laws and political structures based on the analysis and ideas of men, using philosophy and study of other practices and not necessarily based on the Bible. For Protestant groups to desire bringing us back to an age of Biblical jurisprudence is like supplanting the Catholic Church in name only without also the exploring of other ideas and practices.

In a later post I’ll try to go further into how governing based on a Protestant interpretation of the Bible is more of an nonsensical idea than with other religious groups. For Muslims especially, I’m aware there’s the Islamic State trying to lay claim to being the latest religious state but I still contend that the proper interpretation of Islamic jurisprudence is fewer laws (as in, fewer requirements) and more recommendations (as in, highly encouraged, but not necessarily required). When we elevate recommendations into requirements then we start to see the likes of religious states (mind states as well as nation states) that people generally seem to detest and find unsustainable.

Thought of the Day

To Non-Practicing Muslims,

When all the other Muslims around you are gathering for prayer, please join. It takes literally 5 minutes and you’ll likely just sit around starring at your phone if you don’t join. It appears to take more effort to not join than to get in line. I understand some people just don’t have their heart into it, or aren’t in the state of mind, or some other way of saying you just don’t feel like it. So let’s look at it like this:

As a Muslim, you believe in the Day of Judgment. We’re all going to have to account for our time and efforts. Somewhere along the way, you’re going to be shown this instance when you just sat around and killed time while the rest of the people with you prayed. You’ll be asked by Allah why you didn’t join. Does your excuse really sound like a good one at this point?

5 minutes, including getting wudu. It’s really not much.

Another way to look at it is to watch the end of the movie Schindler’s List. One day the war is over and this business tycoon is distraught at the knowledge of how much more he could’ve done. Sell the watch, save a child. Sell the car, save a family. So much more could’ve been done but it’s too late once it’s all over. One day that’ll be all of us. We could’ve done more.

Gays and Islam

The conventional point of view in Islam is that homosexuality is a major no-no. Maybe mainstream media will one day attack Muslims for this general POV after they’re done with focusing on terrorism. But for now, conservative Christians are running cover.

One failure of popular contemporary conservative Christianity is that the uproar over homosexuality was not preceded by a similar uproar over modern society’s consumption and distribution of sex in general and our treatment of migrants and those seeking shelter. If the basis of being against homosexuality is rooted in the story of Lot and the destruction of his people, then we’re typically glossing over the rest of the story; the townspeople acting out their sexual desires in public, attempting to take travelers and rape them, and, at least in the Islamic version, there’s also elements of highway robbery in there. Essentially, the picture sounds a bit more Mad Max than just a bunch of happy queers in Provincetown.

This failure opens the doors for accusations of hypocrisy. From the standpoint of Islamic Law, adultery and fornication in general, without regard to sexual orientation, are major sins. If we step out of the context of modern Western society with its available provisions for STD screening and prophylactics (sure I could’ve said condoms), then adultery and fornication can be a death sentence for an entire family all because of one irresponsible person.

For example, in Uganda, where polygamy is an accepted social norm, there were men who instead had girlfriends in addition to their wife. These girlfriends had boyfriends (married or no) who had other girlfriends and wives and so on. At one point the campaign to stop the spread of HIV focused on getting these men to make wives out of their girlfriends. It was referred to as “tying your goat.” This effectively prevented the further spread of the disease by limiting the sexual circle. Unfortunately, when condoms and safe sex became the mantra, this discipline was lost and the disease began to spread again.

I needed to touch on that point because many of us from more prosperous nations are unable to think about the incredible cost to implement certain social programs versus restricting the behavior that leads to certain negative outcomes. This is essentially the difference in conservative and liberal ideology; preventing the behavior versus treating the outcome of certain behavior. Generally, Islamic thought, on this measure, could be categorized as conservative.

I know this all looked like a tangent but the point still is that conservatives should be more in an uproar over society’s defining certain media as “art” instead of “pornography”, or how a prurient interest test may mean that a community’s standards are offset by the looser tastes of a wider community, or even how people dress and carry themselves in public has become more and more loose. In many ways, for many “conservatives”, the last bastion of conservative thought is in being against homosexuality. Otherwise, the social behavior and interests of conservatives versus liberals is not appreciably different.

I can’t help but read back on this and see how prudish this comes off as. It’s difficult to explain an appreciation for sex, sex education, and the importance of making sure there’s plenty of quality amounts of it while also explaining that I, and many like-minded people, don’t care to be “on” all the time via our media, marketing, and general social norms. Like all things, there’s a time and place, but with sex, my major grievance is that there are fewer and fewer times and places without it.

Before going forward, here’s a disclaimer: I’m not a fan of Saudi Arabia, its singular, rigid, interpretation of Islam, and I don’t typically find much to hold as an admirable example of how a society should be. But there is an interesting, seemingly contradictory, reality in Saudi Arabia; there’s a whole lot of gay sex there where homosexuality is officially punishable by death. To be clear, however, adulterous relationships by married people in general is also punishable by death. But how can there be that much gay sex there as well?

While Islam is outwardly conservative, Islamic Law affords a great deal of freedom behind closed doors, including rights to privacy. The standard required for putting someone to death for sexual misconduct is high; four witnesses or admission of guilt three times. Given these inputs, open displays of out-of-marriage sex are discouraged and placed behind closed doors. Once behind closed doors, if a gaggle of guys go inside their home and don’t leave until the next morning, unless you have testifying witnesses or somehow make a public display of whatever transpired, then no one has any reason to think anything of any interest happened.

In Western minds, this may sound hypocritical, or like a suppression of freedom, but in Islam there is a general directive to promote good and denounce bad and there are everlasting notions of public space versus private.  But today, where going out in public in pajamas isn’t given a second look and taking half-nude sefies is OK, many people seem to have lost the distinction between public and private. Now, for a group of people that have abnormal sexual preferences, bringing that out into the public sphere seems logical. Why would we restrict that but not a nude selfie?

For anyone reading this and paying attention, you’ll notice I haven’t said much about the rightness or wrongness of homosexuality. I don’t like it, but like many things I don’t like, I can just not partake in it and not promote it. But I do feel like joining in the chrous of people bashing it somehow implies that I am uniquely upset at homosexuality being all around me as opposed to plain old sexuality all around me all the time. I find women going to the offices of a Fortune 500 manufacturing company wearing yoga pants more offensive to my everyday sensibilities than the gay guy that’s in my group. I don’t have to talk to the gay guy about his boyfriend or gay current events if I don’t want to. But I can’t not see the person wearing yoga pants.

Finally, as a Muslim, there is something else to keep in mind. The only unforgivable sin is associating deities and objects of worship with Allah (God, Yahweh, pick a name). And as previously mentioned, I know of nothing that places homosexual adultery or fornication as greater than heterosexual adultery or fornication. To pick on homosexuality is to chase a red herring. Gay people have been around for a long time. What’s newer in recent history is the general social acceptance of the amount of sex available in the public sphere. With that as the social norm, why wouldn’t gay people feel left out?

Thought of the Day

The movie Syriana summed up the state of Arab Muslim nations (and extrapolate to all Muslim nations) and what the rest of the world thinks of them:

“What are they thinking? They’re thinking that it’s running out, it’s running out and 90% of what’s left is in the Middle East. Look at the progression, Versailles, Suez, 1973, Gulf War 1, Gulf War 2. This is a fight to the death. So what are THEY thinking? Great! They’re thinking keep playing, keep buying yourself new toys, keep spending $50,000 a night on your hotel room, but don’t invest in your infrastructure… don’t build a real economy. So that when you finally wake up, they will have sucked you dry, and you will have squandered the greatest natural resource in history.”

Islamic Reformation

Bravo Mr. Mehdi Hasan for writing a quick article in the Guardian on what’s wrong with simplistic notions of the need for an Islamic Reformation, a la Martin Luther. Now as Muslims, we know something’s wrong. We can’t point to a single “Muslim” country that would have remotely the same socio-economic appeal as the Western world in general. Kudos to the West for that. It’s not undeserved. The West generally tolerates all types and kinds, from religious to irreligious, educated or not, rich and poor (though we definitely prefer you come with money).

I won’t stop there. For instance, I quite comfortably practice my religion, including performing my five daily prayers, fasting, and even taking a leave of absence for hajj. This is at a Fortune 500 company. And recently the US Supreme Court ruled in favor of a hijabi who was discriminated against for being denied a job at a clothing store because she wears a hijab. The West generally affords people the freedom to be as materially productive as you wish while also observing your religious practices. There are some negative outliers (France!) but generally the atmosphere is be productive at work then just be whatever outside of work.

Now what does all of that praise have to do with an Islamic reformation? Well, for one thing, this sort of multicultural society or mode of thought isn’t completely new to world history, nor is it alien to Islam. The Ottomans’ general modus operandi was this; pay your taxes and obey the ruler and be on your merry way with whatever religion you follow. Until they took over Arab lands, the Ottoman Empire was majority non-Muslim. For anyone that’s surprised by this, just think about all those Muslims in Eastern Europe (oh, wait, there are basically none between Albania and Russia). In reality, the Ottomans and their general laisse faire attitude toward your religion was the preferred choice in contrast to the Roman Catholics who would not tolerate any other brand of Christianity.

Likewise, the Moghuls in India reigned over a predominately non-Muslim population who is today still a predominately non-Muslim (Hindu) population. And until the formal fall of the Ottomans in 1922 and then the creation of Israel, the Middle East was as diverse as ever with its Muslims, Jews, and Christian groups. So one point I am making is that the Muslim world as we see it today looks very different than 1300 of the 1400 years since the revelation of the Quran. Muslims were not governing or living within almost exclusively Muslim populations. However, since the partitioning of Ottoman lands post-WWI into arbitrarily defined Arab states, the creation of Israel through the displacement of Christian and Muslim Palestinians, and the partitioning of British India leading to the creation of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, in relatively recent history (as in, the age of our fathers and grandfathers) we have seen a paradigm-shift in Muslim populations unlike any since the beginning of colonialism.

It’s important to remember this context when reflecting on Muslims, Muslim societies, and challenges faced today. All of it – whether discussing culture, extremism, liberties, politics, or war – relates to these major changes in societies, borders, and leadership that have yet to be fully worked out today. When we keep this in mind then we can avoid making the mistake of blaming the problems in the Muslim world on Islam.

But why would it be a mistake to blame Islam?

First, I have a hard time believing that the peaceful coexistence and relative prosperity of non-Muslim groups under Muslim rulers is somehow a longstanding deviation from the religion that is only recently being corrected by their expulsion. The Quran is clear that there is no compulsion in religion. The history during the time of the Prophet Muhammad (saw) and his immediate successors is also clear that non-Muslim religious groups were safe and secure under his jurisdiction. The golden age of Jewish art and thought corresponds to their presence in Muslim lands and the golden age of Islamic thought. Eastern Orthodoxy, Coptic Christianity, and a number of other non-Catholic and pre-Protestant forms of Christianity found safe haven from the domination of Catholicism within Muslim lands.

Even in regard to apostasy, the hadith that are cited as justification for killing apostates from Islam also contain a key feature that undermines the legal logic in support of that justification; each hadith concerns a person who both 1) killed another person and 2) left the fold of Islam. It’s important not to gloss over the first point because, under Islamic Law (Shariah), the penalty for killing someone is death. Even in the more gruesome of hadiths, involving eye gouging and being left to die under a desert sun, there are other verified (sahih) hadiths that include the point that the killers had themselves done the same to their victims. The Quran allows for “eye for eye” punishments against the perpetrators of crimes. But what has happened is that many have missed the first point and instead have interpreted hadith that involve leaving the fold of Islam as being punishable by death. Under that line of legal reasoning, there is no basis in the Quran.

Second, it would be a mistake to blame Islam for the Muslim world’s issues because I believe most Muslims are unknowing and unappreciative of the Quran and hadith as a body of jurisprudence, as well as guidance, and what that entails. This accusation could be made of people in general. But with Muslims specifically, when we are unaware that there are subtleties in Islamic law, the fact that there are many valid interpretations on many subjects (“valid” also including the Prophet’s (saw) willful refusal to decide one party as more correct than another on certain matters), then we may make the mistake of creating requirements or restrictions when such did not exist nor was it created by the Prophet himself. It’s one thing to encourage positive behavior; it’s also one thing to strongly discourage negative behavior; but it’s another thing to require either.

For instance, some will say we are required to pray at the mosque instead of at home. Typically, what follows is many hadith strongly encouraging and advocating that we pray at the mosque. There is even a hadith where the Prophet would have liked to burn down the houses of the Muslims who did not come to the mosque when the call for prayer is announced. But what is missing is the requirement. What is missing is the evidence that the Prophet actually did what he may have wanted to do. Therefore, without evidence of that follow-through or requirement we cannot create a new religious requirement to pray in the mosque for each prayer.

I believe these distinctions and observations are very important to a Muslim and non-Muslim’s perception of Islam. For Muslims, if you are not aware of what is truly required of you versus what is strongly recommended, and if you’re not aware of the permissible variations or exceptions to these requirements (e.g. traveling or illness), then Islam becomes a much harder religion to practice faithfully because you’ve created that many more requirements and made it that more strict to comply with those requirements. Our general loss of Islamic thought, study, and cultivation in many “Muslim” socieities as made the religion stagnant and subject to blind following by unaware Muslims or general apathy by non-practicing Muslims. This can manifest itself from apathy or outright abandonmnet of Islam to fundamentalist extremism or rigid cultural adaptations.

For non-Muslims, this can make a general tolerance for Islam more difficult to maintain if Islam is convoluted with mindless rigidity, foreign cultural practice, while also seeing that there are other Muslims who don’t seem that way but they are also non-practicing. Islam involves certain practices that differentiate it greatly from other religions; formal, regular prayer and fasting within certain parameters, and guidance on certain social behavior and norms. Adherence to these things on an everyday basis by all Muslims differentiates us from other religious groups that may restrict these everday practices to a small class (e.g. monks, priests, ultra-orthodox Jews) that may be largely removed from mainstream society and business.

The bottom line is this: Muslims are suffering from a lack of widespread intellectual Islamic thought and self-imposed rigidity that is not mandated by the Quran or tradition of the Prophet. We, Muslims and not, are under a belief that the world is, was, and will be a certain way based on what we see now, without appreciating that as recently as our parents’ and grandparents’ generations, the world, and the Muslim world particularly, looked very different from today. Those who blame Islam certainly don’t know much of its history or theology. And Muslims who feel straight-jacketed by Islam need to learn more of it in order to understand what is really required versus what is strongly recommended versus what your cultural norms may be dictating.