Tuesday, August 16, 2005

What is Moderate Islam?

What is the face of "moderate Islam?" When the voice of "moderate Islam" speaks, what do we hear? We hear moderation, of course. But also, we hear Islam. The essay below is by a moderate Muslim, a man who is obviously intelligent and sensitive. But he preaches Islam, and one must ask, even at the risk of offense, what is Islam when it's "moderate?"

If one strips away the immoderate aspects of Islam, what's left? Forget that the Islamic community isn't likely to moderate itself. We need only look at the unfolding fiasco in Iraq to see the future of Islam in the wider world. The question is for us, what is moderate Islam in the West? Is it still a fascist ideology that doesn't commit its members to random murder but to --what?

Islam is a poligion, a political movement, an othropraxy, a totalitarian pseudo-religion. What parts of Islam does one give up to moderate it? What is one left with? The minutea of ritual pubic hair shaving? Sand baths? Fetishistic nail clipping? What would make Islam different from American Presbyerianism other than the words for God? We argue that fascism is still fascism regardless of whether one moderates one violence in public or not. By all means, go through the obsessive rituals five times per day. But who will continue for more than a day when it's not for anything greater than White Bread Americana? We wish the moderate Western/American Muslims great success. But what is that?

In the essay below we get a view of a man who is a Muslim-- one who is not likely admitted into the ummah with any great enthusiasm. He seems more like one of "us," but what is he really? He's a fine writer if nothing else.

By Omar Gatto

Welcome to the Bizarro Umma, where down is up, forward is backward, and wrong becomes right.

The Bizarro Umma believes in the three bizarre illusions. The first illusion is that going down is actually going up. The second is that the way forward is actually backward. And the third exchanges right for wrong. They are such a negative part of our daily thinking that they have deprived the Umma of a livable Islamic culture. These illusions are breaking down among Muslims in the West, to be sure, but they are strong among a majority in our Umma. Make no mistake about it: young and old, smart and stupid, rich and poor, male and female all inhabit the Bizarro Umma. Islamic culture in the Bizarro Umma is unlivable, as is any way of life based on illusions. Our responsibility is to define and build a livable Islamic culture free of the three destructive illusions. Let's get to know these illusions, so we can recognize and avoid their intellectual and spiritual dangers.

The Bizarro Umma, Where Down Is Up

The Bizarro Umma thinks it is moving up in the world, when in fact it is sliding down the slippery path of tyranny by disinformation and oppression by Mulla. This supposed revival is propelling the Umma into a position of worldly glory, so the illusion promises. The Umma can win its rightfully superior position in the world only if it more strictly observes a literalist Sharia (Islamic Law) in its entirety. The Bizarro Umma takes comfort in the increase of women wearing hijab, the head covering, shouts slogans such as "Islam is the Solution," and celebrates those who wage Jihad against modernity, whether by intellectual dishonesty or by terror.

The Bizarro Umma deceives itself by insisting that things are going great, when in fact little is going great. Lovers of this illusion use folk wisdom to convince the Umma that going down is not really going down. Where the Bizarro Umma sees "protected pearls," the world sees the patronized Muslim woman whose oppression can only drag the Umma downwards. She is treated as an object whose sexuality must be controlled under the guise of protection. She is assigned the burden of distinguishing the Bizarro Umma from the West. The Bizarro Umma says men must be in charge because "a ship can only have one captain" as they are fond of saying.

A sure way to move headfirst on the down slope is to declare that "Islamic knowledge" is the only knowledge that the Umma will ever need to move up in this world and the next. You see, the Bizarro Umma picks and chooses whichever scientific knowledge fits within its preconceived world view and believes the rest can be suppressed. Whatever does not conform to its self-deception is eliminated by fatwa (religious decree) although reality's ghost still drags the Bizarro Umma down into a poverty of ignorance.

The Bizarro Umma, Where Forward is Backward

The fact that the Bizarro Umma believes it is experiencing a religious revival highlights its illusion of returning to the past, which implies that progress depends on going backward to an idealized past. This illusion can only cause the Bizarro Umma to fear modern life and condemn the changes in society, politics, culture, and economics that come with modernity. This illusion idealizes the early culture of Islam that the Bizarro Umma thinks was purely Islamic and therefore mandated by Allah and his Messenger. "Islamic" culture did not spring from nothing: the Jahiliyyah cultures in the Middle East never came close to dying out and profoundly influencing the origins of "Islamic" culture at all periods and places in the Umma's history. This is not wrong in itself, because Islam is meant to be a corrective set of principles for people who accept it. Islam did not radically alter Arab society: of course, they destroyed their idols and were forbidden from burying their female children, but when we examine how they built their houses, cooked their food, dressed themselves and how they spoke, most of it remained as it had before Islam. Early Islamic culture borrowed very heavily from non-Muslim Byzantine and Persian cultures to build the civilization we know today as Classical Islam. So then, as just another human culture, there is no religious merit in adopting 7th century Arab culture today.

It is a folly to try to engineer an Islamization of modern cultures to resemble an ancient model which is wrongly claimed as divinely sanctioned. This kind of Islamization typically demands collective unity in behavior, appearance, and thought which overrides the needs and wants of the individual. But culture is a human way of adapting thoughts, practices, and appearances to the environment. Physical, political, social, and economic environments vary widely for people, from desert nomads adapted to scarcity to capitalistic cities adapted to plenty. These cultures did not form as a result of a decaying Islamic monolith, but rather are a natural part of living. No single cultural formula can be forced on people with the expectation that they will survive, let alone prosper. Although Islam has often served as an essential layer in many cultures, it is not a ready made culture-in-a-box. The astonishing variety of past and present Muslim cultures shows that above many systems, Islam has always been very adaptable to a people's circumstances. To rigidify Islam into a uniform monolith is to break it. It is not necessary for Muslims to look towards the past and to certain countries, when the future of our modern Western-Islamic cultures has the potential of being just as bright if not brighter.

The Bizarro Umma, Where Wrong Becomes Right

In the Bizarro Umma, right and wrong have exchanged places. Distorted senses of morality have blurred the criterion between right and wrong to the extent that political concerns outweigh the sanctity of humanitarian concerns outlined in the ultimate criterion, the Qur'an. Nationalistic and communal disputes over pride, land, and power have edged out resistance to the truly reprehensible.

In China and India, female infanticide has reached epidemic proportions, causing a noticeable imbalance in the ratio of men to women. Does not the Qur'an say: "And when the female infant asks, for what crime she was killed?" Instead of berating women for not covering their bodies sufficiently, why not channel the same ferocity into rescuing the tens of thousands of women forced into sexual slavery each year? Does not the Qur'an say, "Do not force the female worshippers of God into prostitution"? Instead of rioting against the West, why not demonstrate against regimes where slavery is still legal? Remember the Qur'an: "And the freeing of slaves." What about regimes which sanction genocide even against other Muslims, like Sudan or the Taliban? The Bizarro Umma stays quiet when its members do wrong to others, but rants loudly when outsiders do the same to them. Spirituality was a casualty in the struggle to employ Islam in the service of materialist struggles for land, power, and wealth. The list of casualties only grows longer: truth drowned some centuries ago in Sharia hairsplitting, and tolerance was murdered shortly threafter.

How to Take the Bizarro out of Umma

The Bizarro Umma must right itself so that up is truly up, forward is truly forward and right and wrong are clear. The Bizarro Umma must admit that pursuing the illusions of the Islamic state and of Islamic social purity can only lead to a distinctly unlivable Islamic life. We must never believe the deception that absolutist interpretations devoid of humanity are simple cures to complex human problems.

History shows that the Umma was least bizarre when intellectual freedom was at its highest. Muslim intellectual freedom can reign again through education and the free exchange of information. Information technology is essential to both, with the potential to exchange ideas and learn new perspectives never greater. We cannot rely on Father Government to do it for us, we cannot reassure ourselves that our imams will actually do the right thing, and we cannot import solutions from overseas; we have to do the right thing ourselves starting here in the West. Although those who teach the Umma to live by these illusions may be lost to us, we can and must reach out to the majority of the Bizarro Umma who are members by default. It starts with us—with our minds, our mouths, our hands.

We must envision a livable Islamic culture, articulate it simply, and live it. The Umma is a reflection of our innermost selves. Only when we discard the three illusions will the Bizarro Umma reflect our essentially good selves as a true Umma, a light for mankind.

Omar Gatto is a Sergeant in the Marines serving abroad and resides with his wife and baby son in Hawaii. A student of Islamic languages and cultures, Omar will begin his doctorate next year.


(Thanks to Mentat for the following:)

In excerpts from his essay Theodore Dalrymple writes:

And there is enough truth in the devout Muslim's criticism of the less attractive aspects of Western secular culture to lend plausibility to his call for a return to purity as the answer to the Muslim world's woes. He sees in the West's freedom nothing but promiscuity and license, which is certainly there; but he does not see in freedom, especially freedom of inquiry, a spiritual virtue as well as an ultimate source of strength. This narrow, beleaguered consciousness no doubt accounts for the strand of reactionary revolt in contemporary Islam. The devout Muslim fears, and not without good reason, that to give an inch is sooner or later to concede the whole territory.

Recently I stood at the taxi stand outside my hospital, beside two young women in full black costume, with only a slit for the eyes. One said to the other, "Give us a light for a fag, love; I'm gasping." Release the social pressure on the girls, and they would abandon their costume in an instant.

Anyone who lives in a city like mine and interests himself in the fate of the world cannot help wondering whether, deeper than this immediate cultural desperation, there is anything intrinsic to Islam—beyond the devout Muslim's instinctive understanding that secularization, once it starts, is like an unstoppable chain reaction—that renders it unable to adapt itself comfortably to the modern world. Is there an essential element that condemns the Dar al-Islam to permanent backwardness with regard to the Dar al-Harb, a backwardness that is felt as a deep humiliation, and is exemplified, though not proved, by the fact that the whole of the Arab world, minus its oil, matters less to the rest of the world economically than the Nokia telephone company of Finland?

[T]he legitimacy of temporal power could always be challenged by those who, citing Muhammad's spiritual role, claimed greater religious purity or authority; the fanatic in Islam is always at a moral advantage vis-à-vis the moderate. Moreover, Islam—in which the mosque is a meetinghouse, not an institutional church—has no established, anointed ecclesiastical hierarchy to decide such claims authoritatively. With political power constantly liable to challenge from the pious, or the allegedly pious, tyranny becomes the only guarantor of stability, and assassination the only means of reform.

The indivisibility of any aspect of life from any other in Islam is a source of strength, but also of fragility and weakness, for individuals as well as for polities. Where all conduct, all custom, has a religious sanction and justification, any change is a threat to the whole system of belief. Certainty that their way of life is the right one thus coexists with fear that the whole edifice—intellectual and political—will come tumbling down if it is tampered with in any way. Intransigence is a defense against doubt and makes living on terms of true equality with others who do not share the creed impossible.

[U]ntil Muslims (or former Muslims, as they would then be) are free in their own countries to denounce the Qu'ran as an inferior hodgepodge of contradictory injunctions, without intellectual unity (whether it is so or not)—until they are free to say with Carlyle that the Qu'ran is "a wearisome confused jumble" with "endless iterations, longwindedness, entanglement"—until they are free to remake and modernize the Qu'ran by creative interpretation, they will have to reconcile themselves to being, if not helots, at least in the rearguard of humanity, as far as power and technical advance are concerned.

And the problem is that so many Muslims want both stagnation and power: they want a return to the perfection of the seventh century and to dominate the twenty-first, as they believe is the birthright of their doctrine, the last testament of God to man. If they were content to exist in a seventh-century backwater, secure in a quietist philosophy, there would be no problem for them or us; their problem, and ours, is that they want the power that free inquiry confers, without either the free inquiry or the philosophy and institutions that guarantee that free inquiry. They are faced with a dilemma: either they abandon their cherished religion, or they remain forever in the rear of human technical advance. Neither alternative is very appealing; and the tension between their desire for power and success in the modern world on the one hand, and their desire not to abandon their religion on the other, is resolvable for some only by exploding themselves as bombs.

[On the Muslim population in British prisons:] What I think these young Muslim prisoners demonstrate is that the rigidity of the traditional code by which their parents live, with its universalist pretensions and emphasis on outward conformity to them, is all or nothing; when it dissolves, it dissolves completely and leaves nothing in its place.


So, what is this about "moderate Islam? We can go back to Muslim WakeUp! We'll find out from an expert.

Professor Asma Barlas

MWU!: What does the Bush Administration mean when it refers to "Moderate Islam?"

The administration's view of Islam as a pair of good and evil twins conjoined at the hip performs two crucial political functions. On the one hand, by portraying "militant Islam" as the real threat to global security, Washington is able to deflect critiques of the US's role in underwriting injustice and oppression on a global scale. On the other hand, by shifting the burden of defeating and eradicating "militant Islam" onto "moderate Islam," the US is absolved of the responsibility to rethink its own injurious policies.

Incidentally, drafting "moderate Islam" on its side does not mean empowering Muslims or rehabilitating Islam. Indeed, Washington's embrace of "moderate Islam" comes at a high cost. Since friends can and do differ, the administration wants "moderate Islam" not so much to be an independently-minded ally as it obedient and unquestioning henchman.

What does Semper Fidelis mean to a Muslim? We know that "associating partners with Allah" is shirk for Muslims, one reason they are forbidden to vote for secular government. It's unpleasant at best to ask about the personal loyalty of a sergeant in the USMC, but we must ask, not the sergeant who is required by the Qur'an to wage jihad against the unbelievers wherever he finds them, and who is compelled to practice deception through kitman and taqiyya as per the Qur'an; no, unfortunately we must ask ourselves if we can trust a man who is a self-professed Muslim to do his duty for the nation he swears to defend.

Few of our readers are learned doctors of fiqh here, but we do know enough to make sensible judgements about Islam in theory and practice. We must ask ourselves what moderate Islam is if the Qur'an, the Sira, the ahadith are cut down to reasonableness. What's left but an anachronistic Mithraism?

One must wonder what the sergeant is about. One must wonder what Islam would be if he could decide it.

Which face is the real one? One must wonder.

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