Sunday, February 22, 2004

Saving Progressive Muslims

By Altaf Bhimji

“Westoxication,” “Marxists disguised as Muslims,” “secularists using and subverting Islam.” These are just a few of the comments that the label “Progressive Muslims” elicits. These criticisms are rarely, if ever, directly addressed. One of the reasons for this non-engagement is that there is rarely any substance in those comments, and often the critics of “Progressive Islam” are just venting with a few choice words. But it is still important to consider if there might be some element of truth.

There are clear limitations to Progressive Islam as experienced in North America, and specifically in the United States. But there are also important strengths and prospects that need to be understood, and valued.

I will limit myself here mostly to the United States, since this is where I live.

We are living in imperial and colonial times, led by the elites of the United States, and largely followed by their counterparts in Western Europe, Japan, Russia and their friends in other parts of the world. The meaning of imperialism and colonialism is not only political, social and cultural, but very importantly, also psychological. The psychological aspect is critical to be aware of if we are to know ourselves better. While the names of colonial powers may have changed, the conditions that colonialism brings about have not.

In Black Skin, White Masks, Frantz Fannon writes, “There is a fact: White men consider themselves superior to black men. There is another fact: Black men want to prove to white men, at all costs, the richness of their thoughts, the equal worth of their intellect.”

This “wanting to prove” is not limited to those who might benefit from privilege by associating themselves with the dominant elite of society; it also exists when, say, a US Muslim activist attempts to “prove” to her/his secular counterpart that “we Muslims” can be just as “progressive” and then some. Like you, we seem to be saying, we too can be self-critical; we too can wash our dirty laundry in public; we too can slam the religious clergy. And we will use your language and stereotypes: we vilify those long-bearded “mullahs” and “fundamentalists,” and we talk about the “oppression” of wearing the hijab and the chador. We advocate for the rights of women, “minorities,” gays and lesbians, and perhaps even against male circumcision. Most importantly these days, we insist on a non-violent Jihad, or at most we might say that first we will devote ourselves to “self-purification” before undertaking the lesser “outer” Jihad, and that those engaged in armed struggles are indeed terrorists. Ultimately, we may even become secularists too--demanding a “separation of state from religion.”

So, what’s wrong with all that? All these issues are relevant to Muslims, aren’t they?

They are indeed very important. But the critical questions are: who is defining the issues, and where are the answers coming from?

This is where those of us living in the US have to be acutely aware of our psychological limitations.

We are not living under occupation, as our brothers and sisters are in Afghanistan, Iraq and Palestine; or under the threat of invasion, such as Syria, and Iran; or under the gun of “don’t you dare try anything independent” such as Pakistan and many of the Gulf states. (And as a result we do not have an understanding of what it might be like to live under the threat of being bombed, or having been just bombed--and thus having a disconnected formulation of what the response might be.).

Not only that, we are living inside the principal occupier and imperial power itself—it should go without saying that this would affect our thinking on critical issues. We live and breathe the supremacist complex of the United States that insists that it is the best in the world, the most free, and that demands strong loyalty and patriotism (or else).

If even veteran activists who are daily engaged in critical thinking on these issues often succumb to this fallacy, then US progressive Muslims--whose activism is very limited and who have no organized group at this time—are especially susceptible.

Although all societies have their own specific contexts, living inside an imperial power possessing the military and economic force to make the world follow its line, or if not, then at least to not unduly hinder its course--that is altogether different. While we may not recognize it, the reality is that being part of the imperialism (yes, I do think that we are part of imperialism by the very fact that we live here, pay taxes, etc.) gives a certain power to the ideas that we put forth. And precisely because of our own context, we who are living in the US have an enormous responsibility to be self-aware.

However, unlike the critics who throw simple accusations of “westoxication,” I feel that we can make a positive contribution as long as we recognize own our limitations, if we can know ourselves better.

I am not trying to make a comprehensive list of all the limitations of progressive Muslims in the US. To the contrary, I am calling for a serious inward examination at how we are psychologically influenced, how our thinking maybe directed towards one area, and not to another. We must be keenly aware that some of our thoughts are conditioned responses of having grown up, lived, or come of age in the US. We need to better define ourselves as progressive Muslims and understand why that term may not hold the same attraction to others.

An inward search will help us in a couple of ways. First, it will help identify the areas towards which we can contribute (and what areas we can’t). Second, we will be better able to stand in solidarity with other oppressed groups in the US without suffering some kind of identity crisis when engaging and working with “secular” progressive activists and groups.

Living in the US has given us an understanding of living with people of very diverse backgrounds. We also have access to a wealth of information here that can help us negotiate the peculiar dynamics of US politics. (How can a huge percentage oppose the war one day, for example, then as soon as bombing begins, polls show 90% support?)

An example of how we can act as a link with Muslims around the world is the role of US Muslims in the anti-war demonstrations prior to the invasion of Iraq.

Not only did Muslims in large numbers demonstrate in the US, but that fact was widely publicized around the globe. Muslims elsewhere began demonstrating, carrying the same “No Blood For Oil” signs. Initially, these demonstrators were sometimes portrayed as “fundamentalists demonstrating in Pakistan” by the corporate, and even some alternative/progressive media. But soon Muslim countries began to stage coordinated demonstrations on the same days as those in Europe and the US in an impressive showing of international solidarity.

By becoming actively engaged in our own local community issues such as workers’ rights and environmental justice, we can be true to our faith while continuing to play an important bridging role with the international Muslim community.

To succeed, progressive Muslims in the US have to recognize the value inherent in Muslim societies. As the late Edward Said reminded us, “Arab and Muslim life has an inherent value and dignity which are expressed by Arabs and Muslims in their unique cultural style, and those expressions needn't resemble or be a copy of one approved model suitable for everyone to follow.”

0 comment(s):

Post a Comment

<< Home