Imam Zaid Shakir, an African American convert to Islam and one of America’s most influential and popular Muslim scholars, commands a rock star following – legions of enthralled and inspired Muslims filling rooms to standing only capacity waiting to hear his words. It represents a fascinating and dynamic phenomenon illuminating the resurgent identity of an educated, spiritual, religious and political Muslim American identity emerging from the post 9-11 era. Shakir, a student of the civil rights era and an educated scholar of political science and traditional Islamic jurisprudence, casually interjects tidbits of political theory, economic reform, critical race theory, Arabic, traditional Islamic philosophy and religious didacticism within his rhetoric. altmuslim’s Wajahat Ali spoke to the highly sought scholar, referred to by his students as a “new Malcolm X” for Muslim Americans, about the “Clash of Civilizations,” the 2008 presidency, religious extremism, and an emerging Muslim American identity.
I want to repeat a section from your most recent essay regarding the presidential elections:
“As long as we politely skirt the fundamental problems plaguing our country, starting with the superficiality of our race relations, Obama’s candidacy and possible election do not represent any real change, they represent a re-entrenched status quo, and illustrate the sort of duplicity that would hound Dr. King as a traitor and communist at the end. The election of an African American, or a woman for that matter, without an associated “revolution of values” will do no more than possibly delay, but will not stave off, this country’s inevitable spiritual demise.”
What exactly, in your opinion, comprises a true “revolution of values” within the modern American political and cultural climate?
SHAKIR: I think a true revolution of values would include having the ability to consider the interests of people nationally and internationally. And on the basis of that ability being able to deem certain policies that historically have been an integral part of American political life – as being unacceptable. Right now, here in California and in other states, we are facing a massive fiscal crisis. There are massive budget cuts. Immediately, there are talks of cutting education, cutting therapeutic and preventive programs for the youth and for poor people. But, there is no discussion of cutting the military budget and changing our foreign policy.
Those are clear domestic implications that accrue from billions of dollar spent on the war. If you spend that much money on the war, you have trouble finding money for other things requiring far less expenditures. The values that don’t challenge the war machine dictate that we will have an unending series of boogeyman to go after. They might be Muslim – in recent history most of them have been Muslim, but not necessarily and not all of them amongst the list of the people we’ve chosen to demonize and then justify military action against. I mean in the ‘80’s, we had Maurice Bishop – that threatening, potential superpower of Grenada.
We had Manuel Noriega of Panama. We burned an entire quarter of the city just to potentially kill him, and as to be expected, he wasn’t harmed, but a large section of Panama City was burned down. When it was over – from that misadventure – we had over 3,000 dead people. So, these boogeyman, most of whom are friends and associates and operatives and assets however you want to term it, at one point of their career might not necessarily be Muslim.
At one time it was Khomeini, then it was Maurice Bishop, then Noriega, now it’s Ahmedinajad. Who is it going to be tomorrow? Who knows? But it will be someone because of the logic of maintaining that “machine”, the logic of renewing those contracts dictates that those armaments have to be used, those bombs have to be dropped, those bombs have to be dispatched, those cruise missiles have to be launched. Otherwise, those companies that make them will go out of business.
So when you have this massive business, this massive infrastructure, this massive expenditure and massive profiteering that goes on during war, then there is tremendous international and domestic consequences. So, a revolution of values would have to challenge the complacency with this arrangement. A revolution of values will have to give equal value to every human life. We can’t just determine that the lives of some people, like the lives of Muslims in Sudan might be “worth” saving [as opposed to the] lives of Muslims in Somalia – where we have almost single handedly one of the gravest humanitarian crisis in Africa today by facilitating and encouraging the Ethiopian invasion of Somalia which undermined one of the few periods of stability they had in recent history. So Somalian lives don’t matter [to us], so we can impose situations on them that will lead them to starvation and refugee status. But, the lives of Muslims in Darfur matter because the politics play out in a different matter, or, the lives of Muslims in Darfur matter, but the lives of non-Muslims in Congo don’t matter. They’ve been dying at far more horrifying rates due to that ongoing conflagration.
We need to give equal value to all human beings. Unless we do that, we will ignore some situations where there is tremendous human suffering, and address other situations where there might be suffering of a lesser magnitude. I’m not justifying that some suffering is more justified than others. It’s all bad is what I’m saying. Unless we have a view of life that it is all bad and that it is all unacceptable, and that we wont engage in policies that encourage it here but discourage that suffering there, but instead, we will do something that will discourage suffering everywhere.
This is a human project. As human beings, we must seriously challenge the idea of “the national interest.” I seriously believe the whole idea of the “nation state” is an outdated and atavistic concept. It had its day, it served its purpose, but now due to the nature of the world, the shrinking of the world, globalization, integration, modern communications, we literally now live in a global village. So, now we must seriously consider a political arrangement that transcends the nation state. Right now, the nation state is for the elite who dominate the state. That might be here in US, in Saudi Arabia, in Europe, in Kenya – the elite that dominate the nation state. It’s an arrangement that the nation state monopolizes the legitimate use of force where that aspect is used to protect and advance the interest of those elites who dominate the state.
If we thought in global terms, in universal terms, we wouldn’t hesitate to begin to make serious changes in the way we do things here as it relates to the economic and ecological damage that ensues from the American way of life. Unless we can begin to think in human terms and develop ideas of human interests to replace national ideas, I think we are in for more of the same.
Let’s relate these ideas to the current political climate. The Muslims came out en masse in 2000 and voted for Bush as an interest group. In 2004, they went for Kerry. Now, most are confused looking for direction. In light of what you just said, what is the best option for Muslim Americans in the 2008 election? Furthermore, is a Muslim interest group, a voting majority if you will, the next political step for Muslim Americans in flexing their cultural muscle? Is there some hope their voices will be heard and it will resonate in changed foreign and domestic policy, or are these votes simply wasted on candidates who will do nothing to change the conditions of prejudice, exclusionism, and war mongering?
I think it’s a flawed system. One of the flaws is that there is no proportional representation. That virtually eliminates minor parties and political actions no matter how attractive their message might be. Some Muslims are attracted to the policies of Ron Paul, but they know he is not electable. Some Muslims are attracted to Dennis Kucinich on principle, but they realize he is not electable. So, a lot of Muslims are attracted to Obama. In that article you quoted, I wasn’t trying to attack Obama or discourage Muslims from attacking Obama. I was making the point that this is the same attitude towards race that manifested itself in a sort of duplicity that was used to assess the career of Dr. King – of what were acceptable actions worthy of being “glorified” with a national holiday and what were unacceptable actions that we don’t even talk about in the mainstream.
That sort of duplicity determines the viability or lack of viability of Obama as a candidate. That was the main point I was trying to make. I think Muslims first of all must ask if we are going to see ourselves as a progressive, social group looking at the interests of Muslims in the progressive sense, or are we looking at ourselves as a progressive human group who are looking at the interest of humanity and then using our potential strength in the political process?
First of all we have to sit down and hammer out an agenda. If you don’t do that, then it’s meaningless. It’s meaningless for half of Muslims to vote for Clinton in one primary, and then half for Obama in another primary. Each side neutralizes the other half. Or, at end of the day, half the Muslims fear Republicans will bring more wars in Middle East, but they are attracted to conservative moral values, then half vote for McCain and other half for Romney. It becomes meaningless. So, if we’re just merely participating in the political system to fulfill one’s civic duties, then there can be other ways of doing that other than voting. Voting is not the only way. It is not the end all of political participation, and voting in national campaigns, specifically, there are other ways to be politically active and make a positive impact in someone’s life.
If we are going to participate in these national contests, the first thing is incumbent on us to do is sit down, talk, and first of all determine why are we in this: to advance a system that will ensure greater liberty and even greater freedom to practice Islam? If that is our priority then we will find ourselves making political alliances with groups whom we have fundamental differences with in terms of our core values, such as gay and lesbian groups. Our strategy would dictate we are cooperating with gay people because the same sort of liberties and constitutional guarantees that would ensure the right of gay people to do their thing and function and exist in this society without the threat of physical violence, hate speech being aired to encourage violence against their group, those sort of policies would provide us protection as Muslims.
It’s very important for us if we are saying we are specifically looking at policies that will ensure to most successfully raise our children and pass on our core values. Then, we might be inclined to vote Republican, because we can say, “Well, we don’t really care because it doesn’t immediately affect me if this is basically a vote for the perpetuation of the war machine.” That’s why it’s very important to sit down and hammer out what are the core values that we want to emphasize in terms of committing ourselves to a political candidate. We might even want to exercise a punitive vote, we make sure those groups that support policies that are antithetical to Muslims, we make sure they move out and we don’t care who wins.
So who does Imam Zaid Shakir say is the candidate to support in 2008?
I think there is promise in Obama based on some of his pronouncements. And perhaps what I mention about race relations is that it won’t scuttle his candidacy, but that remains to be seen. I’m still honestly looking at this situation and assessing where it would be best to place a particular emphasis. But, it’s slim pickings out there.
A sexy term that has been used and abused for the past 10 years is the “Clash of Civilizations.” We’ve seen the rise of anti-Americanism in the Muslim world, the war against Iraq, the racist diatribes of certain pundits against brown folk and Muslims, the anti Semitism and prejudice of Muslims towards certain Europeans and Jews; we see terrorists in London: Pakistani, Britain doctors; we see educated Arabs attacking the WTC; we see extremists murdering Dutch filmmakers and people violently protesting cartoons; we hear about Muslim terrorists in Spain, in Indonesia, in Pakistan; we hear Muslims say “Islam means Peace.” In face of all these examples, isn’t “Islam is Peace” just empty rhetoric? How do you, or can you, if at all, convince the masses that Islam is anything but violent and reactionary, and that we are not in the throngs of a clash of civilizations?
I definitely don’t believe there is this clash of civilizations going on for a number of reasons. Number one, Islam and Christianity are articulations of the same civilization, basically. Meaning that in the classical manifestation they are rooted in Hellenistic traditions. Classical Islamic thought was, philosophically, predicated on Aristotelian logic and Neo-Platonic philosophy. That was the same basis for Christian scholasticism. If you look at the Christian doctrine, you’ll find many Christian theologians, such as St. Augustine, saying verbatim what Muslims were saying. They’re saying the same thing. They were both rooted in the same area of the world, the Mediterranean. If you go further East, you hit the Mesopotamian, similar in terms of influence. Then, you look at the work of Muslims in Spain and Sicily and the establishment of Islamic universities. They were a direct inspiration for and had seeds of the European Renaissance. So, if you look at these two religions if you will, they are articulations of the same civilization: they are rooted in monotheism.
So, it would be very difficult, historically, to determine and separate these two. They developed in the same part of the world – socially, culturally in terms of their core values. I mean there are very little differences between a Palestinian Muslim and a Palestinian Christian.
This whole idea of neatly, compartmentalized, cultural regions and then setting up a clash between them – the world just doesn’t work like that. So, scholars like Samuel Huntington advance this whole idea of a civilization clash, revising historian Bernard Lewis’ ideas in the early 90’s. Lewis focuses on the fall of the Soviet Union that unleashed the forces of the clash, if you will. He was also writing in the immediate aftermath of the first Gulf War. It behooves them to analyze that on the basis of this Clash theory. If they did, it would not argue favorably in support of the theory.
You have Christians and Muslims coming to together not to fight each other, but to fight against third parties. You have the British and the Americans joining with the Kuwaitis and Saudis fighting against the Iraqis. You see the main supporters of the Iraqis are the Russians and to a lesser extent the French. The world is filled with nuances, with gray areas that defy these terms.
Also, if you are talking about a clash of civilization, you should be able to demonstrate it historically in terms of some of the theories, sub theories if you will, associated with the main theory. One of them is that sharing a common civilization mitigates the intensity of wars that do occur. Recent history rejects that idea. The first and second World War, focusing on Christian Europeans mostly fighting against Christians, was among the most bloody conflagrations this world has ever witnessed. The Iran-Iraq war of 1980-1988 was one of the most costly conflagrations in terms of loss of life that the Muslim world has experienced. So, where is the mitigating effect of sharing a common civilization? So, it’s very important to look at things as they are and take the time to work through the nuances and understand the complexities.
In spite of all this, you must realize many people say and will say, “Even if what you say is correct that Islam has science, a rich civilization, poetry, arts, Rumi, Sufism –fine, we’ll accept that, it’s granted. Nonetheless, we still have terrorists, Muslim terrorists in the 21st century. Where did Islam’s spirituality go? Why is Islam’s piety now measured by radical extremism and political militancy?”
Well, again, we have to look deeper than the surface. I believe what you said is very relevant. Why do we have this problem in the 21st century – emanating from some Muslim individuals? I was talking about it in the context of a “civilization,” which is bigger than an individual, an individual terrorist, or radicals, or small cells of potential terrorists and radicals whose radicalism pushes them to violence. A civilization is bigger than that.
A more telling question getting to the root of it is the following: Is this Islam or is this individuals and groups who’ve been radicalized? In the New York Times, even [conservative scholar] Fouad Ajami raises the questions that these terrorists might not be possessors of a whole civilization. My response is that they are not the possessors of any civilization. They’ve been radicalized by social forces, by economic forces, by political forces that they have very little control over.
An aspect of radicalism is the realization of marginalization. The realization that there is no larger venue, if you will, whereby one can begin to think of influencing the politics that are leading to one’s frustration. So they think they can’t rely on any nation state actors, so if we have a “clash of civilizations” then where are the nation states that are mobilizing millions of Muslims, not just a few a thousand Muslims? Where are the nation states that are mobilizing millions of Muslims telling them to expand their civilization at the expense of other civilizations, or to undo civilizations that don’t represent their values and teachings of Islam? Where is that happening? That’s what I’m saying. Civilizations are large, deep, historical forces. They are not small groups.
So, it’s one thing to quote verses from the Quran or traditions from the Prophet to justify one’s actions, but it is another thing to say these are the reasons for taking these actions. If Islam wasn’t there or the Quran, the forces of globalization, of political occupation and domination, would push many individuals associated with these groups to act anyway and justify it the way the Tamil Tigers justify it in their response to foreign occupation and domination of another religion. Or, how some of the youth in Kenya justify it by believing it to be an encroachment of their rights and undermining of their participation in the political process. These are just some examples of political violence, some which involve extreme reactions like the suicide bombing campaign in the past of Tamil Tigers in a group where there is no Islam. So, in the Muslim world if there was no Islam, you’d still have a lot of these radical responses because the underlying socio-political forces that are pushing people to act in desperate ways, they would still be there. And humans beings, at the end of the day, are human beings.
Speaking of “modernity” and continuing on the ramifications of your comments, we have this assumption that Islam is incapable of adapting to modern times. In fact, many suggest the Muslim reliance on following the traditions of the Prophet and his companions is turning the clock back 1400 years. Thus, they think this is proof of Muslims as relics of a fossilized age incapable of adapting to a modern age. Thus, Islam is stunted and not compatible with the problems of modern era. Muslims trying to be Muslims according to the ideology of Islam is akin to burying one’s head in the sand as the world passes them by. People say evidence of this is the scientific and technological advancement of Europe and the technological decline of Muslims. What’s your response to that assumption?
The technological advancement of Europe, which was an anomaly in human affairs, hasn’t just rendered the Muslims backwards and non competitive, but it also has rendered parts of Latin American “backwards.” Those are Christians, Catholics in Latin America. So, if you look at it and make comparisons between Muslim nations such as Turkey, and the comparisons in technological sophistication between oil rich nations such as Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, and even Iraq before the war, then not Islam but the war set it back thousand wars. If you compare the oil producing nations in the Muslim world with oil producing nations in the non-European parts of Africa or Asia, then you find Muslims are extremely competitive. So, it’s unfair to make a comparison between Islam and Europe, or Muslims and Europe. You compare the technological advancements of Europe to Muslims in the third world, but you don’t make comparisons between Muslim and non Muslim people in the third world – to do that makes the point that Islam, specially, is responsible for their backwardness. The same forces that render Guatemala or Costa Rica or Uruguay or Paraguay – the same forces that render those nations backwards are the same forces that render Muslim nations backwards.
Let’s take it from a globalized view to a more personalized view, the actual practice of the religion itself. People say Muslims follow a religion that is now 1400 years old; they still don’t eat pork, they are averse to interest; they have long beards and wear traditional dress; they are relying on this crutch of a 1400 year old tradition, thus even in the practice of their religion they are incompatible with “modernity.” Your thoughts?
[Islam gives Muslims] some grounding to give meaning to their lives in many instances. Suppose there was no Islam in Iraq – You’d probably have massive suicides after a million of their people have been killed, after four million people have been internally and externally displaced, after their entire modern nation state with its education, farming institutions, exports to other nations, agricultural produce and oil, technological advancements: they have all been leveled and unraveled.
To be placed under United Nations sanctions and watching a million of your children die, half a million admitted to by then Secretary of State Madeline Albright. Watching your babies die, being forced to drink sewage infested water because your sewage treatment facilities have been bombed. If you didn’t have Islam there to give people their sense of spiritual grounding, I mean, no telling what you’d have there in terms of the types of resistance and suicide rates you might have. So, Islam has given Muslims a lot of spiritual grounding.
I think a lot of informed religious people have privately said, and I’ve heard this myself, that you should be thankful you haven’t had this type of enlightenment, because it has destroyed our religion. The issue of “modernity” is a function of modernization in a technological and industrial sense, which is largely based on where you are situated in a European dominated global economy. If in that economy, you are situated in a place that, for a number of reasons, allows you to make advances in technology, then it doesn’t matter if you are Muslim, or Christian, or whomever you are.
You can look at close similarities at Turkey and Brazil in terms of industrialization and the factors that undermined their efforts to industrialize. Another comparison between Venezuela – in terms of what they could do with their oil wealth and the realm of possibilities available to them – and Iran, which was fairly populous like Venezuela, but what they were able to do. Look at a small oil producing country and its ability to translate that wealth into a large degree of infrastructure and development, and make comparisons to small Muslim and non Muslim countries without that regard.
You can see what lack of religion had led to some people to in terms of psychological trauma they are experiencing, in terms of alienation. How did the whole social fabric of Rwanda fall apart and lead people to kill each other in the massive numbers you see? No external intervening cause for that. Why hasn’t a Muslim country gone through that genocidal episode? So, there are lot of positives thing you can point to that Islam has contributed. Praying 5 times a day isn’t a crutch that will keep people from modernizing. There are lot of deep historical forces that determined who modernized.
To take this question a little deeper, many students of history have noted that if not for the bubonic plague that broke out in the 14th century, many assume that Muslims would have been the first nations to “modernize.” Why? All the factors were there – Muslims were at the heart of the globalized trading system extending from Scandinavia to China, whose heart lay in Egypt. The Muslim Middle East had the silk roads which converged with all the sea routes. Muslims experienced tremendous and very elevated scientific thinking at the time. What broke this momentum? The bubonic plague that traveled throughout the system and hit the core of the system, the heart of the Middle East, it devastated the heartland. Because of the nature of the settlement patterns in Europe, the impact wasn’t as severe, thus that region was able to be the first to rebound from that age and enter into a process that aided development.
The plague had a negative impact on the momentum of Muslim technological advance that was developing. Another totally unexpected development was the massive source of gold and silver from the New World. Europeans were able to exploit that new, unexpected source of wealth. Not only unexpected, but totally free! It was being taken completely for free. Then, you also add to that the colonization of the New World and the development and use of slave labor, free labor in developing the economic resources of the colonies of the New World. All of that wealth: the gold, the produce of slave labor, all of that coming to Western Europe where at that time the primary Muslim actor, such as the Ottoman State, was experiencing a fiscal crisis. All this money was invested in research and development, money used to orchestrate dominant trade relations with other partners – all of that is occurring at one time. So, there are a lot of deeper historical factors that aided the advancement of Europe and that worked against other nations when that money was discovered. Viable economic relations were developed exclusively between Western Europe and the new colonies of the Americas. Muslims used to be the heart of the trading region, now they belong at the periphery. Western Europe, which was at the periphery, now is the heart between the Muslim world and the new Americas.
In 1453, when Constantinople was captured, the Muslims did it because like the French they adopted the use of cannon technology that other Hungarians and other Christian powers were developing. There was no hesitation to adapt that technology. So, what happened that destroyed that willingness to adapt, that willingness to adjust to current situations? What undermined that? Something happened to change the attitude. So, there is a lot of work and study we have to do if we are going to conclude what are the real factors that can answer any of these questions. Many times we find that religion is not the sole, determining factor, it is a factor, but in many instances it is not central factor.
I need to address this controversial New York Times quotation attributed to you:
“Every Muslim who is honest would say, I would like to see America become a Muslim country,” he said. “I think it would help people, and if I didn’t believe that, I wouldn’t be a Muslim. Because Islam helped me as a person, and it’s helped a lot of people in my community.”
Doesn’t this reaffirm and justify the fear of Americans that Muslims in America are loyal only to Islam, and their ultimate goal is the complete “Islamization” of America, thus making Muslims and their culture incompatible with democracy and the “West?”
(Sarcastically) Uh, no. That was part of what I said. This reporter was with us for 3 months, so there’s a lot of cherry picking [with the quotations] there. That quote, if you see what preceded that, is in the context of a very structured – I mean – if you see the quotation marks “quote” “unquote” “quote” “unquote” introducing very evocative ideas that I didn’t mention at all, such as [discussions on] the Taliban and Sharia [Islamic Jurisprudence] – and then contextualising that to give that impression.
What I said was I respect the right of all people to make the decision about how they want to live their life. As a Muslim, I’d want every Muslim to be a Muslim, and I think every Muslim would feel that way. But, I respect the right of a Christian to believe the same thing. I think every Christian wants everyone to be “saved” so everyone can go to heaven. Everyone should be free to choose whatever they want to believe. That’s what I said. If that statement is problematic then the first amendment is problematic.
All I’m saying is everyone should be free to advance their ideas and to accept or reject the ideas of others. Period. That’s all I was saying. When I said that there wasn’t any controversy. I specifically said this to this reporter that I made the same statement at an Inter-faith conference in the context of sitting on panel with representatives of other religions. That was the origin of that statement. I said “We’re all here and we are presenting our ideas. As a Muslim, I’d like all of you to become Muslims. But as Christians, I respect you might want everyone to be Christians. But what is important for us is to be able to share our ideas and work for a system where people can be free to choose.
There is a problem of race relations within the Muslim American community: Muslim on Muslim crime, if you will. Often most Muslim conferences talk about “Unity” yet we traffic in stereotyping and racial prejudice that is rampant within the American Muslim citizenry. What causes this?
As Muslims in this country there are lots of factors that work to create divisions at a fundamental level between communities whose populations are rooted in immigration and communities of converts: African Americans primarily, but increasingly Latino and Caucasian-American. From an immigrant perspective you have people in many instances who are coming to America, who have been, historically, attracted to her through “brain drain politics.”
People who were successful on their own right, people able to pass very rigid entrance exams in their respective countries – they were very privileged and talented individuals. When coming to this country, they found the universities to be very receptive, and the brightest were given scholarships and education. When you have that degree of talent, it becomes very easy to assume anyone, who just works hard and gets ahead, makes it the way “I made it” – and not to look at the some of the factors that work against everyone getting ahead just like in the country where you come from. In that country, there were, say, only 5000 seats for education, but there were millions who couldn’t pass the high school exams, and millions who couldn’t pass the junior high exams.
So, there is a tendency when one is successful to forget the realities that render a lot of people unsuccessful – to use those terms. Coming with those attitudes and seeing people whom you assume had the same opportunities you had in this land of opportunity – it works towards creating very narrow minded attitudes that are very shallow in terms of really understanding the dynamics at work in the lives of many people from different racial, ethnic groups. Those prejudices play themselves out in the mosques.
In addition, many of our societies are plagued by racialized thinking. You see a lot of color consciousness in a lot of Muslim societies – Syria and to a lesser extent Sudan. Pakistan and India where lighter skin people are looked in a different light than darker people. The daughter who has lighter skin, even if her features aren’t as attractive as the darker skinned daughter, she gets all the marriage proposals.
She’s the number one draft pick.
Yeah, so then you come to this country and you see a lot of African American Muslims and you have this built in mechanism to project the inherent, intrinsic racialist, racist attitudes towards those people. These create a lot of discomfort when the two groups come together and this is perceivable. Especially at those who are considered to be at the lower end of the economic spectrum. It is very important for Muslims to acknowledge this and not be in a state of denial regarding a lot of these racialist attitudes, color consciousness, and social economic snobbishness – it’s real!
You have those attitudes, you have that tension, and then you have a desire to exclusively pursue those interests. Each group is pursuing its respective interest and not looking at how coming together in certain areas could strengthen certain communities, especially in this indigenous, racial divide. So, when each group is selfish, then the everyday life activity and organizational activities of the other group becomes irrelevant.
You get a phenomenon like 40,000 people in Chicago for an ISNA conference [the largest Muslim American conference in America] and less than 1% of that is African American Muslims, even though 35% of American Muslims are African American. Or, you have Warith Deen Muhammad’s convention [Elijah Muhammad’s son] and over 99% of attendees are African American, because people feel it is relevant to their circumstance and identity. We have, as Muslims, stagnated ourselves in terms of how we organize ourselves, our interests and those advancements that deepen these divisions. We need to transcend this because we have so many ways we can help each other and strengthen each other.
Malcolm X when he went to Hajj had an observation that I don’t deny: that people of different groups tend to congregate and gravitate towards ones who are similar. Urdu speakers go to Urdu speakers, Spanish speakers go to people who speak Spanish for example. Should there be a level where we can recognize this and even celebrate it? This is part of what the Quranic message encourages: “We made you into nations and tribes.” It’s a reality, it’s a cultural reality. But shouldn’t there be a higher level where we can identify some common issues that no individual group or no individual ethnic collectivity has the power to address individually? And then come together at that level to those larger issues that affect all of us? So, it’s important for us to mature to a point, where as you said, as opposed to empty cries for unity that totally ignore the sociological basis of the separation that exists in the community are replaced by a mature call for creating common agendas that don’t seek to eradicate the existing divisions, but seek to glorify and celebrate those divisions.
But, on the other hand, look at a higher level of interest where our collective resources are needed. For example, challenging the spread of prejudicial and hateful attitudes towards Muslims. That’s a massive project. The people spreading those ideas are spending lots of money, publishing books, dominating talk radio, getting their voices on major media outlets like Fox and others. So, to compete on that level and put out a countervailing message, is going to take a tremendous amount of resources that no one community possess. It will taken a common agenda, a common message, a common strategy and pooling of resources, such as a nationwide legal endowment with lawyers on retainer with ongoing research into civil rights and human rights issues that are relevant to Muslims in this country – like a NAACP legal fund but for rights of all Muslims. Responses as a community to those situations in a very effective manner: fueled jet plains loaded with resources to supply medicine ready to fly anywhere in the world for example. That’s what we are capable of doing as Muslims if we are to come together and think at a higher level and not confine our activism to issues that are specifically germane to “my corner and segment” of the Muslim community
Most know that in the 2004 elections, the issue of “moral values” was statistically shown to be the most important issue for voters. However, what was underreported was that under moral values, “materialism” beat out gay marriage and abortion as the most prevalent problem according to voting Americas. Discuss the materialism of America and Muslim communities and how it has, if at all, contributed to a spiritual decline.
Materialism is going to the idea of a “revolution of values.” In this country, we must take a hard look at why we have such a wasteful life and what are the implications on others. Why should 5% of the world’s population be consuming 30% of the world’s resources? There’s no way we can justify that. Why do we need 3 bathrooms when the whole time we were living in our apartment with one bathroom there was no argument or fighting? Why do we need 11 ft ceilings when we are 6ft tall? Why do we have to drive a Hummer or an Escalade, and we say we are getting this for my wife so she can feel safe when she is only 5’6″ and weighs 140 lbs? Why does she need a Hummer and why contribute to the waste that it involves?
We need to consider this Earth has a finite resource base. What examples are we setting for others? We’re saying to be successful we need 2.5 bathrooms, you need to have two cars. For example look at China, they are chasing the American dream, they will say, “I need two cars.” Look at consequences of 300 million Americans living like this, and what will happen with one billion Chinese living like this? One billion Indians? This is madness. China is literally destroying their eco-system to make the “industrial” advantages they are making. Taiwan has already destroyed their eco-system. This is sheer madness. We must realize local is better. Localized communities. We live close to places we work in, we grow our food close to communities we live in, we buy and shop close to community we live in which cuts down on the massive costs of moving and packaging goods. We must realize there is a finite amount of resources, and as Muslims one of the great objectives of our Divine Law is preserving children, to preserve the future of our children.
It’s very important to think what kind of world we are going to leave our kids, and if these children are denied the opportunity to walk in an oak or redwood forest. Their ability to even breathe might be compromised – deforestation, polluting the ocean, a tremendous drop off in Salmon and the possibility that in 5 years Chinook Salmon will be gone. To never see a salmon run, to never walk in a forest, to never see a polar bear, because they are all extinct due to our activities and our greed. It is very, very troubling. What sort of world will we leave our children? Is it all get rich quick, develop, industrialize now and forget about the consequences for future generations? That’s a dangerous attitude to take.
The core value we have to change is the materialist nature of our life and the impetus to own, to shop. We have a looming recession. How are we going to stave it? We are going to give a taxpayer $600 rebate so they can go out and shop. Anytime anyone is going to get money, they are going to shop. They won’t save the money for the kids. They won’t give that money to charity, or to help the less fortunate. They will go out on a shopping spree. The whole premise is dangerous and deeply flawed and it’s important for us now to challenge those premises and look at the deep, ecological consequences of those premises.
In the end you are only one man. Yet you have millions around the globe looking up to you, following your advice, calling you the “next Malcolm X for the Muslims” – for any man this is tremendous pressure and immense weight on their shoulders. I feel like you are like Frodo from “Lord of the Rings”. Surely, moments of doubt have crept in your mind and you have asked yourself “Why me?” or “I’m not worthy.” How do you confront this reality: your scholarly obligations and duties, your own weaknesses, and the weight of people’s impossible expectations thrust upon you?
We had a lesson last night on just accepting whatever Allah gives you and give that it’s full right. Basically, in summarizing the text, the author said, “Be wherever Allah has placed you.” So, if you are placed in a situation with some public exposure and influence, then be responsible and do that to the best of your ability. If you are placed in obscurity, then be content with that and give that it’s full right and fulfill the right that you owe to everyone in that situation.
One of the ancient sages said, “Whoever seeks to have a public face, then that person is a slave to publicity. And whoever seeks to be hidden away and be obscure, then that person is a slave to obscurity. And whoever seeks Allah, then the two states are equal within him and her.” We pray that we can seek Allah and that whatever we are challenged with us in this world, whether it involves fame, popularity, or shame in the eyes of people, but as long as you’re right with Allah, to give each situation it’s full right and to make Allah the ultimate objective of our striving. Not our ego, nafs. Not the pleasure of people, but the pleasure of Allah. If we are sincere in making that our attitude and orientation, no matter what Allah challenges us with, we will rise to that change. Inshallah [God willing].
Wajahat Ali is Pakistani Muslim American who is neither a terrorist nor a saint. He is a playwright, essayist, humorist, and recent J.D. whose work, “The Domestic Crusaders,” is the first major play about Muslim Pakistani Americans living in a post 9-11 America. His personal blog can be found here and he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.