The last word on Muqtedar Khan & PMU

The last word on Muqtedar Khan & PMU July 23, 2005

A few weeks ago, I posted some comments  concerning Muqtedar Khan’s
resignation from the Progressive Muslim Union that sparked a rather lively
exchange between myself and some of his defenders in the blogosphere. 

I ended up removing the original entries from the blog after a few days. 
I did so out of my own ambivalence about PMU/MWU and because I realized that
some my off-the-cuff remarks could have been phrased more judiciously (not to
mention weren’t intended as my definitive statement on the matter) . 
However, I remain convinced that the broader concerns I raised were and remain legitimate
and important enough to warrant a more considered and consolidated treatment. 

First off, I should note that this isn’t personal, contrary to the
assumptions of some of my respondents.  Were I to discuss the politics of,
say, Paul Krugman or William Safire with the same candor, no one would accuse me
of violating the rules of Islamic adab, as they are public figures by
virtue of their prominence in the media.   I see no reason for it to
be otherwise here.  The fact that Muqtedar Khan is a fellow Muslim and
member of a small community shouldn’t make him exempt from constructive criticism.
Public feedback comes with the territory when you’re a pundit, especially one
with a taste for controversy.  Also, providing that feedback to society’s leaders–whether in government or in the media–is also a critical part of being a citizen in
any democracy worth the name, being second in importance only to voting among civic duties.

Secondly, my comments concern the political consequences of his writings and
statements in the mainstream media.  I make no attempt to assess his
scholarly output. In other words, I’m talking about his work as a pundit, not as
an academic.

Thirdly, I find this discussion quite distasteful–I’d love to focus on cheerier topics–but the stakes involved here and the fact that these issues aren’t being openly discussed in the media make me feel obligated to openly express my concerns.

Muslims are on the front line of another, far less discussed "struggle", the struggle for
soul, especially its civil rights legacy and its tradition of a
dynamic, balanced media. And Muslims are taking heavy casualties these days.  Though
they would seem by virtue of their dual heritage as both Muslims and Americans
to be the West’s most valuable and obvious asset in the War on Terror, the American political establishment has yet to treat them that way and, consequently, few American Muslims feel
secure enough today to contribute their opinions freely to the debate. 
Facing a mainstream media with little interest in understanding Muslim concerns
and vicious vilification campaigns by pseudo-patriots bent on demonizing all Americans (especially Muslims) who do
not toe this administration’s line, many Muslims have chosen to remain silent in
debates in which they have every right to participate freely and in which their
voices are desperately needed.  This is as tragic for America as it is for
Muslims, as the War on Terror will never be won so long as Muslim Americans are
prevented from participating freely in the debates of their great nation.

In light of how problematic a number of Khan’s political views  would seem to most people
in the American Muslim community, I find the almost complete absence of public
criticism of his politics by Muslims to be highly conspicuous, and seemingly
symptomatic of the problem discussed above.  It seems to me that many
Muslims, even prominent leaders, are so afraid of losing their credentials as
"moderate Muslims"–which in this time of overzealous and sometimes woefully
ignorant security officials could be the only thing between your average Muslim and an
extended stay in Hotel Guantanamo or some other abomination against the
Constitution–that they remain silent even when Khan makes distrubing public statements that seem designed to provide political support to the Bush
administration’s wrongheaded and disastrous policies.

So, I see this as being about more than Muqtedar Khan or about me.  At the risk of
sounding melodramatic, this is about the health of our democracy and the right
of Muslims to contribute to their nation’s debate freely and without fear of
being labeled extremists for merely exercising their constitutional right to dissent with some of their government’s policies. 
This includes challenging pundits, journalists, and leaders in the public square when we think they
get things wrong.

There’s no denying that Khan makes positive contributions to the
debate.  His writings often contain declarations and arguments that are
clearly sympathetic to Muslims and Muslim views, and he
periodically fires off loud broadsides at Sharon, Bush, or some other eminently deserving target.  However, assessing a public figure’s impact on the debate is more than just tallying the  number of complimentary things
he’s said or written.  It is ultimately about assessing their net impact on the debate, which I see as the
extent to which they have contributed to an improved understanding of  the
most pressing and/or misunderstood issues confronting the public and policymakers  On that
score, I think Khan record is a bit mixed, however good his intentions may be.

To me, he seems to play a maddening game of political ‘Good Cop/Bad Cop’ (compare his infamous "Memo to American Muslims" to his excellent "Domestic Dimension of the Arab-Israeli Conflict"; it’s hard to see how the same person could’ve written these articles, as the latter could be read as a critique of the former). 
One minute, he invokes the slogans of the Left and presents himself as the progressive activist and champion of the Muslim community.  The next, he is subtly
endorsing many of the neocon claims, prejudices and double-standards that are
strangling the American body politic.

I’m hardly alone in these concerns (as the
protest by Muslim activists against his inclusion on the PMU board
and the attack on his  post-9/11 politics in Z Magazine
in January 2005 show) and I doubt many informed observers will  be all that
surprised by them.  While he protests loudly that he is on the ‘left’,
many fellow leftists would question that characterization. I think that only in a neocon-dominated Washington could Muqtedar
Khan be passed off as a liberal.

I also have to note how Khan’s disturbing letter of resignation from the PMU (which can be
read in its entirety at

and has been eagerly promoted elsewhere online) seems to fit into the Good Cop/Bad Cop routine I’m talking about.   While I personally do not find him a credible spokesman for progressive Muslims given his neocon-light politics, he has presented himself as a champion of the cause of progressive reform and has at times written insightfully on the topic (e.g., his "Is
Undermining the Progressive Muslim Movement"
  makes some valid points), so I find it hard to understand how he could resort to such reactionary rhetoric, the kind of propaganda that is used by extremists use to demonize all liberal Muslims and reformers. 
He writes:

My close interaction with PMU has taught me three things, (1) that
clearly I am not sufficiently indifferent to the teachings of Quran and
the traditions of the Islamic heritage
to be a "good Progressive
[emphasis added]

Such charges do not have the ring of
constructive criticism from a kindred spirit or even a former ally, but rather the shrill tenor of
fighting words from a sworn enemy who is out to discredit hated opponents and paint them as the enemies of God.   Such a declaration is doubly immoderate and inflammatory when coming from  a
Muslim leader who presents himself as the champion of reform, progress and tolerance.   

Another problem with this polemical letter is that though it come from a pundit known for holding forth at length on the "progressive Muslim agenda" it makes absolutely no attempt to grapple with the difficult  issues that PMU, for all its problems and obvious misteps, and indeed all progressives are trying to address.  Khan makes it sound like PMU issued a fatwah that alcohol was no longer haram:

But not to observe Islamic values after recognizing them as such to me is a sin.
I cannot for example in good conscience approve of alcohol consumption by those
who acknowledge it as forbidden. To demand that I do so in order to remain a
member of the community
is exactly the kind of oppression that I though we had
come together to fight.
[emphasis added]

The reality is far more complex, as what really happened is that PMU leaders defended a person’s right to choose to drink alcohol in the privacy of their homes free of harassment by other Muslims.  In essence, they said that it’s nobody’s business but Allah’s. 

Yet Khan portrays this as a simple case of secularists bent on undermining Islamic values.  That’s one possible reading, I suppose, but
it’s hardly one I’d expect from a self-described progressive leader who
tries to lecture  reformers like Khaled Abou El Fadl on the need for jurists to allow the "democratization of interpretation".  Quite to the contrary, it’s the kind of paranoid, kneejerk reaction one would expect from the extremists that he  criticizes so loudly in the major media.

Any reasonably constructive and fair critique of PMU’s admittedly amibigious policy on alcohol (something which I have also expressed grave concerns), especially by an ally, would concede that there is a possibility that this is an honest attempt by PMU–which is made up a lot of different kind people with different ideas and beliefs- to live up to the Quranic
dictum, "There is no compulsion of religion" and refrain from imposing beliefs on others.  A fair critique would acknowledge the fundamental difference between advocating something and defending the right of others to make their own moral choices.  In short, a fair critique would concede that one can be against the kind of religious vigillanteism one encounters among some Muslims without condoning sin.  Khan seems oblivious to these possiblities as he attacks PMU with everything he’s got. 

To those who find this assessment overly critical, I can only suggest that they take another look at  his political writings and consider how these–despite the regular stream of feel-good pronouncements about Islam and the Muslim community–frame key issues
(e.g., the War on Terror, Islamic fundamentalism, Muslim anti-Semitism, the
Israeli/Palestinian conflict, extremism within the American Muslim community,
…) in ways not unlike that of Muslim-bashers.  For all his good
intentions, his writings on current affairs have a distressing tendency to
dovetail surprisingly well with the Islamophobe narrative of Muslims being the
root of all contemporary evil–always victimizers and never victims–and the
corollary that non-Muslims who oppress Muslims are ultimately justified in
various ways by "the facts" of history (in other words, anti-Muslim violence is always an understandable reaction to Muslim misdeeds).

The article in Z Magazine mentioned earlier lays out some eye-opening examples of cases of where
Khan’s commentary seems to provide diplomatic cover for the neocon agenda that
he claims to vehemently oppose, and there are analogous examples from the
domestic American arena of his analysis playing into the hands of the Muslim
community’s worst critics. 

From my perspective as an American Muslim, though, the most disturbing example is how Khan
regularly validates the canard that CAIR and other Muslim organizations have a history of being
soft on terrorism (which in this political climate translates into them
supporting terrorism).  This
demonstrably false and
repeatedly disproven
"fact" is one of the most potent weapons in the necons’
rhetorical arsenal and is ceaselessly exploited  to fan  prejudices against Islam and deny Muslims a  voice in the American
politics (after all, civilized people don’t dialogue with people who "support terrorism").   
Unfortunately, whenever the media needs a seemingly moderate Muslim to give this
politically motivated slur against the whole Muslim community a patina of
objectivity, he the guy they generally turn to.  The
bottom line is that every time he re-affirms that odious, dangerous
misconception, however innocently, he undoes much of the good he’s done in other arenas.

In my previous postings, I also expressed dissatisfaction with his factual
analysis (as opposed to his politics) on the Muslim community.  I compared him to my favorite media
whipping boy, Thomas Friedman.  In my opinion, Khan is occasionally prone to generalizations and oversimplifications of
vital issues that demand careful analysis.   Like Friedman, he is intelligent, playful and thought-provoking.  The problem is that the thoughts he elicits on some of the most important
topics far too often end up being predictable ones that reinforce widespread misunderstandings
and oversimplifications (e.g., the tired old charge that Muslims have been supporting terrorism).  These simple, politically safe formulas play well among non-Muslim observers, but that doesn’t make them any less counterproductive in the final analysis.   (Until very recently most of even the most superficially informed American observers were absolutely, unwaveringly, convinced they knew all about Iraq’s vast hoard of WMDs, and probably saw endorsements by Muslims of Bush’s rhetoric on WMDs as signs of singular courage and insight rather than the misinformed speculation and/or political posturing that they were.)   Like Friedman, his witty and memorable quips sometimes dumb
down the debate and obscure key  facts  rather than provide new insights or much needed context.  In other words, his analysis reinforces rather than challenges the reigning orthodoxy that has gotten us into this mess.

For a concrete example of this, we can take a quick look at his article in The Detroit News discussing a study on the political views of Muslims in Detroit.  The premise of this piece is a laudable one–it heralds the "remarkable moderation" of this Muslim community–but we soon see how good intentions can be undermined by breezy soundbytes that
complacently rely on the conventional wisdom and ultimately make it impossible for outsiders to understand the real distinctions that exist within the Muslim community. 

I’ll focus just on two of doctrinal categories of Muslims employed in the article.   First,
traditionalists, we are told, simply "adhere to a fossilized interpretation of Islamic laws", hardly an objective, doctrinally astute,
or even very clear characterization.  Good luck identifying those Muslims objectively.  It gets worse with Salafis, who are defined as Muslims who "practice gender discrimination and segregation as divine law and believe all non-Muslims including Jews and Christians will go to hell unless they embrace Islam".  Here things get really messy, as Salafism has been so defined so broadly that it quite literally becomes useless as a way of distinguishing between Muslim groups.  Like many Christians, most Muslims believe in eternal damnation for those rejecting the God’s Truth as they understand it.  Like many Christians, they believe you just gotta convert.  Such beliefs may not be politically correct or make for very pleasant dinner conversation, but they are hardly a sign of political or even ideological extremism. 
Similarly, if religiously sanctioned gender discrimination was limited to Salafi Muslims (who, by all accounts are a small minority worldwide), the Muslim world would be a veritable Garden of Eden of gender equality!  And there are more examples of basic terms of the debate being defined in a vague, ideosyncratic manner.

I hope I’m not the only one who sees how potentially misleading this analysis is.  Imagine how many innocent people would be victimized if a DHS counterterrorism official were to read an article like this and base his anti-terror profiles on such vague definitions.  Who wouldn’t be a "Salafi" by this standard?

Now, one thing I should have noted before is that another reason I compare Khan to Friedman is that, like Friedman, I know that
Khan is capable of great things.  Friedman, after all, is the author of
From Beirut to Jerusalem
, an engrossing and fairly balanced account of the
civil war in Lebanon that quite rightly earned him a Pullitzer.  For his
part, Khan has repeatedly proven himself capable of producing truly profound,
balanced and hard-hitting analysis of Muslims and international affairs. 

However, like Friedman, he regularly allows his fondness for memorable quips and generalizations to get the better of him and muddy the waters of very important discussions affecting the Muslim community.

To those who’d argue that this is unnecessary in-fighting in a time when Muslims and the good name of Islam are already under attack, I’d respectfully argue that this is about  issues that are at the heart of those problems.  It is also an attempt to establish space for real dissent, as opposed to the tepid, toothless, and carefully circumscribed critiques that are often passed off as dissent in the mainstream media today.

Muqtedar Khan’s role in America’s post-9/11 political landscape is a complex one that I think warrants critical examination, as it raises serious concerns and highlights problems in the media. Also, like any other leader, he should be not be above constructive criticism.

Allahu `alim.

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