Most of the attention, scholarship, and punditry in the United States given towards Islam and Muslims since 9-11 have focused upon problems with comparatively little attention toward solutions. Understandably motivated by a need to improve security and understand the enemy, American curiosity about Islam, Islamism, and militant Islamism continues to grow. Yet, comparatively American Muslims have offered few solutions except for the few rare voices of Muslim moderation (anti-Islamism) across America, Canada, and Europe.
At times there is only a binary choice in the public ether between the voices who say that “Islam is the problem” and the tired voices of the Islamists who provide endless apologetics, denial, victimization, and every deflection possible short of responsibility or actual ideological solutions for a counter-jihad and reformation. Certainly, the Islamists, no matter how peaceful, who look at the world through the lens of political Islam are at the core of the ideological problem. They knowingly and unknowingly feed the enemy’s central political construct of society—political Islam. Yet, we so need to separate political Islam (Islamism) from the spiritual faith of Islam as a faith. Is it easier said than done?
An anti-Islamist devout Muslim like myself - and so many others who believe we are in the majority - can only shout in the wilderness for so long, before there becomes a need to begin to address some of the most difficult but central questions, which many Muslims ignore either out of pride, self-righteousness, or impatience. Whether many pious Muslims acknowledge it or not, non-Muslims who believe that ‘the religion of Islam is the problem’ are growing in numbers. I can either dismiss their arguments as “Islamophobic” as so many do, including the Islamists, or I can begin to address some of the central issues raised positively in the spirit of understanding, logic, and most importantly in the spirit of American security.
We need the anti-Islamist Muslims
Most should understand that strategically, identifying ‘Islam as the problem,’ immediately alienates upwards of one quarter of the world’s population and dismisses our most powerful weapon against the militant Islamists—the mantle of religion and the pulpit of moderate Muslims who can retake our faith from the Islamists. The majority voices in the middle, the non-Islamist and anti-Islamist Muslims who understand the problem, have to be on the frontlines. They cannot be on the frontlines in an ideological battle being waged, which demonizes the morality of the faith of Islam and its founder, the Prophet Mohammed. We cannot win this war only on the battlefield. Political Islam has a viral recurrence in the form of an infection which needs a Muslim counter-jihad in order to purge it. Thus, we cannot win this ideological war without the leadership of Muslim anti-Islamists. The radical and political ideologies of Islamism, Wahhabism, Salafism, Al Qaedism, Jihadism, and Caliphism, to name a few, cannot be defeated without anti-Islamist, anti-Wahhabi, anti-Salafist, anti-Al Qaedist, anti-Jihadist, and anti-Caliphist devout Muslims.
So often, attempts by anti-Islamist Muslims to claim that our faith has been hijacked or our faith has been twisted are dismissed by non-Muslims. They simply take common interpretations of Wahhabis and say rather that, ‘it is the anti-Islamist Muslim who is deluded and who is misrepresenting the faith of Islam”. They use the citations of the militants from our Holy Qur’an’s scripture and from many authentic and questionable Hadith (discussions of the Prophet Mohammed) to marginalize moderate Muslims and claim that they have no theological framework from which to claim legitimacy.
The question remains-- who or what defines Islam, and under what authority? Islam has no clergy and is represented only by a book, the Holy Qur’an (what Muslims believe in Arabic, is the communication from God to Muslims). Islam’s naysayers by accepting radical interpretations of scripture are thus handing the militants the mantle of religion with hardly the benefit of the doubt or patience toward long term opportunities for reform by anti-Islamist Muslims within the general Muslim population.
The process of theological renewal and interpretation in the light of modern day thought—ijtihad—as it is known in Islam is in many ways hundreds of years behind Western enlightenment today arrested around the 15th century. This process can either be facilitated by non-Muslims or hindered by the belief that it is impossible. There is quite a bit to be said for the value of a necessary critical facilitation (nudging) of Muslim reform (as opposed to blind uncritical apologetics). But there is also a fine line between useful criticism of Muslims and especially of political Islam and the less than helpful alienation of all Muslims through criticism of the faith of Islam in general. Most of the same arguments targeting Islam can similarly be made against Muslims and their interpretations while just not blaming Islam as a faith, which needs to be part of the solution.
Too nuanced for practicality? Not necessarily when our most critical allies within the Muslim faith are those that are strong enough to love their faith enough to wake-up and want to take it back from the Islamists and their barbarians like Al Qaeda.
Political Islam (Islamism), not Islam, is incompatible with Americanism and pluralism
Like most believers of any of the major world religions whether Jewish, Christian, or Muslim, I, as a Muslim believe that Islam carries the same messages of humanitarianism and compassion shared by the religions of the God of Abraham and deserves an equal place at the table of world religions and is not in conflict with our American Constitutional government. Some Muslims may behave, interpret, and express ideologies which are not from God but contrarily evil and from Satan, but they are still Muslim. I cannot deny that. We have no church to excommunicate them.
However, we also should remember that every God-fearing Muslim believes that the religion of Islam as a faith comes from God in the same way as Judaism and Christianity. The identification of ‘Islam as the problem’ is arguable from a pedantic standpoint since it is hard to disagree with the fact that “Islam is as Muslims do and say.” But academically, when dealing with the faith of one-quarter of the world, and with its history, a central morality of individual Islam (the personal character of most Muslims) has generally demonstrated synergy with Judaism and Christianity. It is just that in the past few centuries, political religious movements, which exploit the personal faith for political oppression and often fascism, have controlled the leadership.
It is important to be academic about this assessment and not assume that what appears to be the silence of the majority of Muslims equates to agreement with the Islamist leadership who exerts a stranglehold over the community. We are doing our national counterterrorism efforts and Muslims a disservice if we assume that the ‘lowest hanging fruit,’ which comprise all currently Islamist organizations (CAIR, MPAC, or ISNA - to name a few) and their proportionally limited membership speak for all American Muslims. Their silence on the need for reformation and the need for Muslims to lead an anti-Islamist effort from within our faith community represents their own Islamist agenda of the members and donors but does not represent the general Muslim population.
In debate, it can become easy to lose the focus of the argument when resorting to criticism based on identity rather than on ideology. For example, so many Islamists locally and nationally resort to attempting to demonize me as an individual rather than deal with my anti-Islamist ideas as a Muslim and as an American. Our Islamist enemy dreams about uniting all Muslims under one nation—the transnational Muslim ummah. To declare our ideological battle against Islam is to hand them the easiest tool toward that unification (ummah-tization) strategy for which they dream and to dismiss our most potent weapon against the jihadists—anti-Islamist Muslims who can lead a counter-jihad from within the Islamic community. Only anti-Islamists Muslims can de-ummahtize the Muslim community and articulate an Islam, which inspires morality but leaves national politics to the governments of our nations.
A shared moral tradition
For many non-Muslims engaged in the debate to accept the fact that Islam is not the problem, it stands to reason that they must first feel that Islam as practiced and held by Muslims fits into the predominant moral framework of American spirituality and values of the God of Abraham (a Judeo-Christian-Islamic morality, if you will). This is evidenced by the moral behaviors of the vast majority of Muslims in America and around the world. This morality certainly comes from God and for Muslims the faith of Islam is the source of it no different than Judaism or Christianity is for Jews and Christians.
Now, bring political Islam into this mix, and one is left with many questions. Is Islam compatible with democracy? Can Muslims separate mosque and state? Can Muslims be anti-theocratic? Can Muslim behavior and thought today be consistent with modernity while so many current Muslim legal constructs enacted in the name of sharia law seem not to be? How do Muslims reconcile their history of an empire ruled by a Muslim Caliphate, an empire which had varying rules for its citizens based upon faith with today’s more pluralistic universal laws of American society blind to one faith? How do Muslims reconcile the plight of women’s rights in ‘Muslim’ societies with their faith and the West? Those are just a few of the questions so many thoughtful writers have tried to answer since 9-11.
Before embarking upon a discussion of any of those questions, which can fill texts, a more fundamental question remains concerning the central principles of any Muslim’s faith. Is the foundation of Islam as felt and practiced within each Muslim a moral one?
From a counterterrorism assessment, formulating a threat assessment of the ideologies at play are very necessary. Before blanketing the faith of Islam as a threat to Americanism (religious pluralism), Americans first need to be able to separate Islam from Islamism and Islam from what some Muslims do.
Americans will find that for most Muslims generally - as it is for Jews or Christians or any God fearing individual - the central defining principles of faith are not dictated by the specific interpretations of God’s laws (sharia for Muslims) or to any single one of the interpretations of various passages of the Qur’an peaceful or otherwise. As a Muslim, my faith as I see it and as it has been taught to me in its most devotional expression is simply-- my personal relationship with a moral God—the God of Abraham. The stronger and more personal is that relationship, the more pious an individual may be. Thus piety is not measured by others or by outward actions or expressed beliefs, but rather piety is dependent upon the intensity and purity of that internal relationship with God.
The essence of the nucleus of the primary cell of Islam as an organism of faith is a human being’s manifestations and choices for goodness over evil which includes love, honesty, compassion, empathy, courage, integrity, humility, character, behavior, self-control, creativity, discipline, and gratitude to name a few of the faith defining human principles most faiths share. When our families taught us about faith and God, most of the time was spent on these principles. To most Muslims, the countervailing ‘evil’ choices to these positive human characteristics come from Satan and not from God. The existence of evil and its acts only demonstrates that God has given humanity free will. Without the existence of evil, humans would not have choice or free will. Often evil will exploit religion to defeat that which is good.
It is this inherent human tendency toward good and away from evil, which is the central notion of Islam as it is for Judaism and Christianity. From this then arises a spiritual life with a deep personal relationship and communication with God as seen in all of the faiths recognizing the God of Abraham.
From this spirituality, this goodness, then arises the character, which an individual carries to life and to our theological texts and their derived interpretations. While the body of laws available today may not all contain a modernized interpretation, it can certainly be modernized if the Muslims doing the modernizing are of sound moral conviction and integrity and education. It is the corruption, tribalism, and ignorance of so many in the Muslim world, which has poisoned any moves towards enlightenment. But this conflict between good and evil is one, which will be won by the righteous when pious Muslims who fear God, and respect universal humanitarian principles are empowered to stand up to evil under the moral courage of the inspired principles of the God of Abraham.
My family always taught me that a Muslim will not miraculously find his or her character within the pages of the Qur’an or Hadith. But rather, a Muslim’s interpretation of our holy text is through the lens of one’s established moral character, which is developed on a personal human level from within the soul and conscience not a textual one.
Our own moral compass and its inherent principles are a lens for life which is produced in an early stage of youth and adolescence that sets the tone for how we interpret life and religion. While the details of religion can inspire and direct this compass, life’s core direction toward good is formed and maintained internally between an individual’s soul and God early on. Suicide bombers, jihadists, and other militant Islamists are evil at their core and just turn to the language of Islam found in the Qur’an or the Hadith to justify their barbarism, coercion, and doctrine of the ends justifying the means and of political Islam. Granted, this is much easier to do with the ready availability around the world of radical and medieval interpretations so desperately in need of 21st Century enlightened pluralistic re-interpretations.
Accepting this common Muslim formulation of faith is vital to marginalizing the militancy of current radicalized interpretations most of which are of Salafist derivation and rather expressing a core positively guiding morality for the vast majority of Muslims. It will take Muslims who love their faith to articulate a modern Islam to create an etho, which accepts the radical interpretation as immoral.
Certainly, the ubiquitous jihadist and Caliphist interpretations of Islamic literature and jurisprudence are in need of an overwhelming alternative narrative to the fundamentalist interpretation, which so often dominates the airwaves. We must believe that the predominant Muslim morality as derived from God and exemplified in the life of the Prophet Mohammed and in the vast majority of Muslims is one of good, one of the Golden Rule, of compassion, and of humility.
Once we can accept that most Muslims are moral and believe in a faith with an inviolable moral nucleus, than we can find hope that the seeds of reformation of formal textual interpretations will be planted for freedom and liberty, for free will over coercion, over theocracy and over political Islam.
If most Muslims were immoral, the world would have perished a long time ago. It is Islamism, which deserves our combined energies in critique and ideological deconstruction. Muslims, however, who are anti-Islamist and practicing a modern moral Islam are the key to its defeat.