It is not sufficient to say that we must return to Islam. We must specify which Islam: That of Abu Dharr or that of Marwan, the ruler […] One is the Islam of Caliphate, of the palace, and of rulers. The other is the Islam of the people, of the exploited, and of the poor.1
They may prefer to burn the temple down, rather than succumb to the worship of a foreign god.2
Defining Progressive Islam
In some ways all attempts at definitions are authoritarian. Like any social movement, progressive Islam has a contingent nature and is likely to be interpreted in a variety of different ways. What H. Moghissi said about Islamic feminism is equally applicable to Progressive Islam: “There is no coherent, self-identified and or easily identifiable Islamic feminist ideology and movement operating within the boundaries of Islamic societies.”3 While there is – or aught to be – a dynamism with any phenomenon described as “progressive”, there may be certain parameters beyond which one cannot stretch the application of the term and still make any claims to coherence. As Terry Eagleton has pointed out, “any term which tries to cover everything would end up meaning nothing in particular, since signs work by virtue of their differences.”4 The Shorter
In Muslim discourse the term Progressive is usually used in a variety of contexts and for many it often represents a simply anti-authoritarian or anti-conservative Muslim discourse. The expression “progressive Islam” was first popularized by Suroosh Irfani with his Revolutionary Islam in
… [the] progressive Islamic movement is anti-imperialist, and in the economic domain, its opposition to capitalism and the exploitative system on which capitalism rests is unequivocal. It believes that Islam as an ideology can mobilize the Muslim masses by its appeal to social justice and the challenge it poses to the status quo.9
A Definition and Declaration
The only systematic attempt to define Progressive Islam hitherto was the initiative undertaken by the Progressive Muslim Network (hereinafter “PMN”) late in 1998 on the internet by a number of activists and scholars, including the present author, from various parts of the Muslim world. After several drafts consensus was reached on a final document titled “Progressive Islam - A Definition and Declaration”. This declaration (hereinafter “the Declaration”) continues to form the basis of membership to the Progressive Muslim Network and is the framework against which I want to reflect on Liberal Muslim responses to the events of 11th of September and offer an alternative progressive Muslim view. The following definition is offered in this Declaration:
Progressive Islam is that understanding of Islam and its sources which comes from and is shaped within a commitment to transform society from an unjust one where people are mere objects of exploitation by governments, socio-economic institutions and unequal relationships. The new society will be a just one where people are the subjects of history, the shapers of their own destiny in the full awareness that all of humankind is in a state of returning to God and that the universe was created as a sign of God’s presence.10
There are several pertinent issues here that frame my discussion on a Progressive Muslim perspective of the events of 11th September 2002. Some of these are specifically outlined in the document when it elaborates on the definition:
First, while there is a commitment to “understanding”, the locus of progressive Islam is the terrain of the struggle for justice – or praxis - rather than the arenas of critical thinking for its own sake. Understanding is viewed as the product of engagement for justice combined with reflection rather than the product of a disemboweled critical enquiry. In the words of Rebecca S. Chopp who has done much to examine the tensions between modernist and liberation theology, the “turn to praxis [is] a way of making theology less a false theology, less an academic illusion and less an incoherent abstraction.11 “Understanding” or “critical enquiry” is thus secondary to the task of working for justice and an extension of “an expression of Islam that places socio-economic, gender and environmental justice at its core.”12
Second, the concerns of the privileged or the dominant classes are not the primary subject of progressive Islam; its focus is on those who have become “objects of exploitation by governments, socio-economic institutions and unequal relationships”, in the words of the Qur’an; those who had been marginalized (aradhil, Q. 11:27; 26:70; 22:5) or downtrodden in the earth (mustad`afun fi’l-ard, Q. 4:97; 8:26). The declaration describes the mustad`afun fi’l-ard as “those individuals and groups who, for no wilful reason of their own, find themselves pushed to the edges of society to live in conditions of social, political and economic oppression.”
Third, humankind is located within their dual position of being simultaneously autonomous beings with full agency and as returning to God. Agency implies power over one’s life and one’s status as a returnee to God implies both a sacredness beyond one’s commodity value as well as defining the limits of that agency. “In other words, our struggle to experience a personally and socially meaningful Islam is rooted in praxis geared towards creating a more humane society as part of a sustainable eco-system in the service of the Transcendent.”13
Fourth, there is an “intolerance” toward those who are viewed as responsible for exploitation; The document covers three elements that may be ‘blameworthy’: governments, socio-economic institutions and unequal (personal?) relationships. This seems to be an attempt to reflect comprehensively on how, not only governments or obviously political institutions, but also those who play more covert political roles such as large corporations, the international monetary institutions as well personal relationships can militate against human dignity. In opposition to the mustad`afun fi’l ard, the Qur’an does present – and demonizes - the “mustakbirun” (those who exalt themselves above others. (Q. 16:22).
Finally, the declaration significantly omits any mention of ‘peace’ or ‘tolerance’ and outlines the following as tendencies that must be opposed:
The projection of an inevitable of Pax Americana and the unfettered march of globalization in the service of the market.
The relentless promotion of corporate culture and consumerism which results in the exploitation of our natural environment, deforestation, the destruction of local communities and the eco-system and cruelty to animals.
Racism, sexism, homophobia and all other forms of socio-economic injustices, both within and outside of Muslim societies and communities. “These injustices”, the Declaration says, “detracts from the sacredness of all humankind imbued when God blew of His own spirit into the first created person.”
Intolerance and fascist tendencies which insist on and seeks to enforce a single and absolute appreciation of truth in all religious and cultural communities including Islam.
From the “Major Jihad” to the “Superior Jihad” - Liberal Islam’s Response to 9/11
In the media frenzy which followed 11th of September numerous Muslims were interviewed in the media and a large number offered editorial pieces or had their own thoughts circulated on the internet. While it was a time for conservatives to go into hiding or re-invent themselves as liberal apologists for the faith and for the fundamentalists to quietly vent their glee as they dispersed in order to regroup for another battle at a later stage, 14 the more authentic liberals dominated the media as spokespersons for the Muslim community. Large sectors of the media wanted to allay the fears of the western public that the “majority of Muslims, unlike those Afghanistan-based barbarians or the fanatical Wahhabis, are really decent folk with whom we can do business.” "It's a bad analogy, said Emran Qureshi, an independent scholar and software designer who lives in Ottawa, “but I feel like I can come out of the closet and criticize these guys," (New York Times, 28th October, 2001) Several of these liberal Muslims, as Qureshi’s response suggests, were also the victims of past or ongoing persecution by the conservative or fundamentalist elements in the Muslim communities and the ravages of those injuries clearly showed in their responses. It was one of the rare opportunities when liberals emerged as publicly recognized – even if grudgingly - saviors by and of the Muslim community.
From a perusal of more than a hundred articles circulated on the Internet the following salient features may describe the liberal Muslim response:
First, there was the widespread acknowledgement that Muslims and or certain tendencies in Islam are “the problem”. Tendencies singled out for criticism or condemnation included intra-Muslim intolerance, Wahhabism, Muslim fundamentalism, stagnation in Islamic jurisprudence, and a refusal to recognize the religious legitimacy of Christians and Jews. While most commentators dealt at length and exclusively with these, a few suggested that attention also need to be paid to other broader political or ideological concerns which either breeds fundamentalism or are invoked to fire it among Muslims.15
Second; liberal Muslim responded from the premise that ‘fundamentalism’ was perhaps the single-most important issue facing the world and the events of September the single-most important “event” that required a radical shift in Muslim responses to modernity and being in the world. “I am a Muslim” wrote Mona Eltahawy. “The terrorist attacks on Sept. 11 shook my faith to its foundation. I am angry and ashamed that Muslims will forever be remembered for such horror.”16 While the way the North, particularly the USA, responded to those events ensured that it was going to be decisive moment in world history, liberal Muslims did nothing to challenge to the idea that this was inevitable and that the USA’s pain is not - or not to be - the axis around which the earth rotates. With few exceptions, the frightening and calculatedly “short-termism” of the
Third; there was desperation to distance Islam from ‘terrorism’ and while some attempted to reflect on the underlying causes of terrorism there was little or no attempt at defining it.19 When it was discussed at all, it was presented as “the result of long-standing and cumulative cultural and rhetorical dynamics” rather than concrete historical conditions of political marginalization or dispossession.20 Demands for clarity were usually dismissed as “fudging the issue” or unhelpful in the attempt to prove that Islam is a peaceful religion. In this desperation, the hadith of the Prophet Muhammad – acknowledged by all hadith scholars as “weak” – that armed combat was a lesser (asghar) jihad compared to the greater (akbar) jihad against one lower self was elevated to canonical status and one liberal commentator even rendered ‘asghar’ as ‘inferior’ and ‘akbar’ as superior.21 While jihad was critiqued and repackaged as entirely non-threatening, an uncritiqued ‘peace’ was presented as an absolute pillar of faith. Islam was persistently and erroneously declared to mean ‘peace’.22
Fourth; most Muslim liberals commentators presented themselves as the “authentic” interpreters of Islam and engaged in the decidedly non-liberal tendency to essentialize Islam; “Osama bin Ladin was not a Muslim”, “Wahhabism and fundamentalism have nothing to do with ‘true Islam’.” “True Islam” was presented as a concrete immutable of set of idea and beliefs, while others became the “inauthentic usurpers” of this set of beliefs: “Why have we allowed the sacred terms of Islam, such as fatwa and jihad, to be hijacked by obscurantist, fanatic extremists?” asked Ziauddin Sardar.23
Finally, none of the liberal Muslim response suggested any awareness of the larger context wherein the tragedy of 11th September was unfolding. It sadly appeared as if issues of globalization, the rise of the new empire and corporate power, the unbridled exploitation of the earth’s limited resources, global warming, consumerism and its twin sister, poverty, as well as HIV/AIDS seem to belong to another planet. Flushed away were all memories of the co-operative relationship between the Taliban and the
A Progressive Critique of Liberal Islam
The most important underlying distinction the progressive and liberal responses were the primary subject of discourse. In owning the obsession of the powerful as theirs, liberal Muslims made the powerful their own primary subject and issues of authenticity and meaning the central crisis for their understanding of Islam. Progressive Muslims insisted that the primary subject and focus of their Islam were the “non-subjects of history”. In effect, Liberal Islam has functioned as an ideology of and for the bourgeois, struggling to secure freedom as individual and ahistorical. Elsewhere I have argued that there is no objective theory unaffected by each person’s socio-historical particularity and for Islam to be self-consciously grounded in praxis.25 When scholars or commentators deny their social location or base their responses entirely on personal negative encounters with their communities then they end up effectively being extensions of the structures of the powerful. The current “Islam means Peace” and “The basic message of the Qur’an is really identical to the
While Progressive Muslim shared the revulsion of others at the death of innocents, they display a much more cynical attitude towards an uncritiqued peace discourse. For Progressive Muslims, “real peace” seems to be one that follows the creation of a just world. In contrast, a seemingly ideologyless peace which, uncritiqued, translates into acquiescence to a new corporate dominated world—most starkly represented by the United States of America—is not only one to be avoided but also opposed. Dominant empires develop an ideological rooted interest in peace which reinforces a status quo that may very well be an unjust one as Paul Salem points out: “Conflict and bellicosity is useful – indeed essential – in building empires, but an ideology of peace and conflict resolution is clearly more appropriate for its maintenance.” 27 When we fail to raise critical questions about the status quo that requires peace then we run the risk of becoming a part of the problem.
In a more local context, this was certainly true for all the progressive forces in
A Progressive Muslim Response to 9/11
In the immediate aftermath of 9/11 and the “war against terrorism” the progressive Islam response was perhaps best captured in a khutbah (sermon) delivered in
So without asking the world where it stands or what its options are, Bush has made the decision for us. There is really no need for us to even think about it; he has decided: you either shout “Viva
Unlike most traditional and liberal Muslims, Jeenah locates the ‘problem with the
In their arrogance and their cynicism the
Jeenah looks beyond the drama of TV and the grand events of the moment:
The World Trade Center slaughter was despicable. We can say it a million times. But on that same day (and every day recently), 35000 children in the
The Islamic religious inspiration of the terrorist of 11th September was acknowledged as well as their culpability. Furthermore, the painful reality of people rejoicing at the collapse of Twin Towers and the Pentagon as well as widespread support for Osama bin Laden in perhaps two third of the world, particularly the South28, was acknowledged and challenged:
Then there are those of us who have suddenly become pro-Osama and pro-Taliban without necessarily understanding what that means. We extend our support to those who deserve it. In this case we extend our unqualified support to the Afghan people who have been victimized for more than two decades. But the Taliban? […] whose intolerance against people of other faiths is legend and whose intolerance against other Muslims is often violent? […] if the Taliban or their local supporters were ruling this country, I probably wouldn't be allowed to deliver this sermon in English (if I would be allowed to deliver it at all), the women upstairs would not be allowed to attend the mosque, we probably would know very little of what's happening in Afghanistan because our TVs would be smashed and our access to information restricted.
The Clash of Twin Fundamentalisms29
In the wake of the terrorist attack several observers began commenting on the similarity between the style and rhetoric of Osama bin Laden and the USA President, George W. Bush. Indeed, at times it appeared as if the were in competition to out-evil each other with each referring to the other as the “head of a snake”.30 This self as other, captured on the cover of Tariq Ali’s “Clash of Fundamentalisms” where Bush appears fully bearded and wearing a turban, was also reflected in the comments of several leftist writers.31 Arundhati Roy wrote:
Both invoke God and use the loose millenarian currency of good and evil as their terms of reference. Both are engaged in unequivocal political crimes. Both are dangerously armed - one with the nuclear arsenal of the obscenely powerful, the other with the incandescent, destructive power of the utterly hopeless. The fireball and the ice pick. The bludgeon and the axe. The important thing to keep in mind is that neither is an acceptable alternative to the other.32
Both Bin Laden and Bush were being singled out as the “bad king” by some and the “good king” by others, and vice versa, all of this in some ways reflecting a very inadequate view of how history unfolds. Individuals certainly contribute immensely to the shaping of history. However, reducing the problem to a “bad king versus good king” ignores the fundamental tensions in the world, the class and gender interests of some and the way these are only represented by ‘good kings’ and ‘bad kings’.33 The liberal rhetoric of ‘if only we get rid of Saddam/Gaddhafi/Bush/Sharon/Arafat usually prevents or at least impedes any serious analysis of a problem – and indeed, one sometimes gets the impression that this is intentional.
But who is Osama bin Laden really? Let me rephrase that. What is Osama bin Laden? He's
Now that the family secret has been spilled, the twins are blurring into one another and gradually becoming interchangeable. Their guns, bombs, money and drugs have been going around in the loop for a while. (The Stinger missiles that will greet US helicopters were supplied by the CIA. The heroin used by
The attack on
Expecting a terra incognita, I found myself instead in the land of déjà vu. The lexicon of The Wall Street Journal and the business sections of Time and Newsweek turned out to bear a striking resemblance to Genesis, the Epistle to the Romans, and
Definitions of religion have constantly eluded scholars of religion. In a general sense a Transcendent, usually called “God”, or an “Ultimate Concern” is at the core of religion and the focus of the believer's life and physical death is a an attempt at moving closer towards that or concretizing that in his or her life. Religions in general have a theology of selfhood and otherness, temples that are abodes where a ‘purer’ form of that attempt to connect with the Transcendent is expressed. Being religious is a way of being in the world with its unique and often competing symbols—e.g., the Cross and the Crescent. For many religious believers there is also a paradise or nirvana for the faithful adherents and a hell for those who refuse to join them or who failed to do so because of their “essentially evil nature.” The term ‘fundamentalism’ is also used in a variety of different ways. It has a peculiar history in 20th century North American Protestantism with its insistence on adherence to the literal inerrancy of the Bible, and many have argued that its imposition by journalism on to Islam and Muslims is an unfair one that does little to advance any understanding of contemporary developments in the Muslim world. Whatever its origins, fundamentalism is today widely regarded as a combination of several attitudes:
An obsession with a single truth as understood by the believer or the believer’s group.
A sense of chosen-ness tied to the demonizing or damnation of all others who refuse to get behind this “truth.”
The willingness to destroy those who offer alternatives in a “holy war” where innocent victims are referred to as 'collaterals.”
The conflation of ideals with one's personal being: “Islam is a perfect religion, therefore I am beyond questioning”, “The American Dream is perfect, therefore trust me.”
While the Taliban and Al-Qaeda represented the worst of Muslim fundamentalism, in the larger scheme of things though, their reach was and remains rather limited. This is particularly true if one does not embrace the growing tendency of many states to utilize the new anti-terrorist orthodoxy as a way of dealing with all forms of internal dissent and resistance to foreign occupation ranging from the Uighur Chinese, to the Tibetans and Chechens. Far more extensive in its actual - as opposed to perceived reach - is the fundamentalism of the Market. As David Loy argues, because we have failed to recognize the Market Capitalism as a religion, let alone a fundamentalist one, we have failed to offer “what is most needed, a meaningful challenge to the aggressive proselytizing of market capitalism, which has already become the most successful religion of all time, winning more converts more quickly than any previous belief system in human history.”37
Many who have remained nominal religionists find their lives rotating around the worship of Capital and like suicide bombers drive themselves to death as sacrificial lambs (or martyrs) at the altar of “success” in its service. “Shop till you drop” is a basic creed of faith. It is difficult to leave one’s home or switch on one’s TV without being confronted by its missionaries or having a pamphlet thrust in one’s hand (“Convert Now Or You Will Lose Out!” “Buy Now - The
The struggle against countries which choose an independent economic path is unashamedly described as a “crusade” with collateral damage ("There are no innocent victims in our crusade against
Beyond the public drama of religious fundamentalism and more covert forms of religiously justified political violence are realities which impact on a much larger amount of people and on the only home of humankind, the earth. The obsession with Muslim fundamentalism may, in fact, serve to detract from this. (Regardless of whether there is a causal relationship between Muslim fundamentalism and these realities).38 There may indeed be a relationship between the war on terrorism and the decision of the Bush administration to open the Alaskan wilderness to oil drilling exploration. The United Nations Development Program’s statistics that indicate that in 1960 countries of the North were about twenty times richer than those of the South. By 1990, North countries had become fifty times richer. The richest twenty percent of the world’s population now have an income about 150 times than that of the poorest twenty percent, a gap that has continued to grow. According to the UN Development Report for 1996, the world’s 358 billionaires are wealthier than the combined annual income of countries with 45% of the world’s people. As a result, a quarter million children die of malnutrition or infection every week, while hundreds of millions more survive in a limbo of hunger and deteriorating health. For the mustad `afun fil’ard Bin Laden is distant figure or, sadly, a hope as some many demonstrators at the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg seem to think with their t-shirts displaying his smiling face. For those the 2.8 billion who “live” on less than $2 a day and who confront death by starvation or half an existence under foreign occupation the realities cited above may well be the terrorism of our age. When Muslim liberals suggested any relationship between 11th of September and political grievances, it was confined to
There is nothing in this clash of fundamentalisms that is intrinsically Islamic, in the same way that there is nothing intrinsically Christian about the religion of the Market or of the ideology of apartheid. That the Muslims responsible for this attack may have been inspired by Islam is plausible; that they used Islam as justification for their deeds is apparent for the Qur'an is as open to diverse readings as any other text. There is thus some responsibility on the part of Muslim thinkers to expose and oppose the theological and textual basis of their arguments. To confine oneself to combat with those tendencies, however, is inadequate from both a South perspective as well as an Islamic one. To do so also risks being co-opted in an uncritical peace discourse that has a name: Pax Americana; peace on the terms of the
A progressive commitment to destabilizing the current world order – and destabilization is not to be conflated with political violence as numerous activists in the global justice movement are increasingly demonstrating - is not an option because of a blind hatred. Rather, unlike the Market fundamentalists, we actually believe that an alternative vision of the world and being in it is possible. Humankind, as the Progressive Muslim Network Declaration affirms, are not only consumers or the objects of greed; we are in a state of returning to God. Islam is, indeed, a religion of peace, but not exclusively that. It also calls upon people to destabilize the peace when it hides the demons of injustice. In addition to confronting the fundamentalism of the Market and the havoc that it has played with we also have to deal with the problem of Muslim brokenness, fragile egos and delusions of grandeur involving our power and control over a world governed by the shari‘ah. The problem with Muslim fundamentalism is that is as totalitarian and exclusive as the order that it seeks to displace. It seeks to create an order wherein they are the sole spokespersons for a rather vengeful, patriarchal and chauvinistic God – a God that incidentally resembles that of George W. Bush and his fellow travelers in the religious right wing. The Taliban represent the logical consequence of a literalist and misogynistic reading of our earlier Islamic heritage; a reading that is far from an aberration. They have, for example, always insisted that women will also have access to medical treatment if the government can afford it. How different is this from the Wahhabi regime in Saudi regime where they do enforce this segregation because they have the financial resources to do so. When we see Osama sitting cross-legged surrounded by hundred of books on Islamic jurisprudence and theology, we are seeing one of the strands in the Islamic. Arguing that the Taliban and the Wahhabis do not “really” represent Islam is unhelpful for we fall into the trap of setting ourselves up as the sole authentic spokespersons—the same weapon that is being used against liberal and progressive Muslims. We can insist on asking, along with `Ali Shari‘ati,: “Whose Islam? Whose lives and interest are being advanced by our understanding and interpretation of Islam?”
Which Islam is that the Shah refers to? Is it the Islam of imperialism? An Islam which is made for the next world and says nothing about this world. The imperialist brand of Islam dictates that Islamic nations be their colonies and allows then to loot the wealth, resources and productivity of Muslim lands.41
People concerned about other people and aware that the earth is our only home with finite resources need to find each other and collectively work for socio-economic alternatives before these fanatics led by Corporate America under the flag of the McDonalds’ Golden Arches and Bush as its spokesperson or Al-Qaeda under the crescent with Osama bin Ladin as its spokesperson - destroy all of us.