March 31, 2017

Tradition and Change in the Encounter Between Islam and Secularism

One interesting aspect of the modern struggle for freedom for Muslims to practice their faith in the USA and Europe is how that struggle changes all the parties involved, in unexpected ways. Americans can fret about 'creeping sharia', Europeans can rail about secularism, and even ban the headscarf in the EU, but they can't keep more and more Europeans and Americans from converting to Islam, and indeed it seems, the more they rail, the more attractive Islam seems to free-thinking Europeans and Amricans, who wish to discover the religion for themselves. In other words, the kind of exclusionary hardcore secularism promoted by many Europeans and American atheists is precisely the kind of ideology more likely to drive people towards committed religious belief as a countercultural move (especially when they see the connection between Islam and the Black Freedom Movement in the US). And if anything the struggles over Islam expose how secular atheism can be just as much an exclusionary, hateful and doctrinal ideology as what these same atheists imagine Islam to be. Secular atheists of the left will try desperately to argue that the secular right in Europe and the US is not the 'true' secularism, but the fact is that secularism itself is being reshaped by struggles around Islam, and will continue to evolve in unexpected ways as a result of this encounter. On the other hand, traditionalist Sunni Muslims seeking the freedom to practice their faith in an American context can rail against liberalism and secularism all they want, but they will have to tolerate Ahmadis, Shias and other Muslim religious dissidents who would be persecuted and killed with nary a peep about human rights in majority Muslim countries (countries they often travel to because that is supposedly where the faith is the 'purest'). They will have to share religious space along LGBT communities who are politically mobilized in ways unfamiliar to those immigrating from majority Muslim countries. They will have to reckon with the close association between Islam and hip-hop in the US, while the scholars they learn from regard music as haram. Most importantly, they also have to share space with atheists, who are, along with Muslims, the least popular religious group in America. In advocating for religious space in America and Europe, using secular principles, Sunni Muslims are already beginning to shift, fudge or simply reject the faith's basic attitudes toward atheists, who the Quran condemns in the strongest possible terms. No doubt there will be a considerable amount of double think around this shift, but it is happening and it is already changing the practice of American Muslims I know (Europe I am much less familiar with). As much as this horrifies the likes of certain Muslim bloggers and preachers, Islam itself is being reshaped around its struggles with liberalism and secularism, and will continue to evolve in unexpected ways as a result of this encounter. What I personally take from this: Don't let anyone tell you that a civilizational clash is occurring, or that either Islam or the West has a superior moral code. Study civilizations and beliefs from the perspective of insiders, but don't assume the insider's beliefs are always valid. Don't let anyone convince you that secularism or Christian values or civilization or Islam "must be defended." Don't let anyone tell you not following a particular Abrahamic book means you have no metaphysical or moral foundation. Defense of abstractions, whether they be books or ideologies, can be necessary. But these same defenses can also quickly turn into a willingness to sacrifice others for the sake of your book or your ideology. There is an African proverb, "when two elephants fight, the grass gets crushed". Today's violent struggles are manmade fights for geo-political and worldly power that have brought untold horror to "the grass" (the people). At this point it is of little utility which elephant crushed whom. Some of us need a more limited focus on local principles of reciprocity and treatment of our neighbor. Some of us need education on what Islam is and what Muslims believe. Some of us need to remember that black Muslims were in America before most white Christians or atheists. Some of us need to stop assuming that a man with a beard and a thobe hates women and gays, or that a woman with a hijab was forced to put it on. Some of us need to be as outraged by violence in Mosul as we are about violence in Paris. Some of us need to stop implying that liberal Muslims are insincere goons and toadies. Some of us need to stop believing that all unbelief is just ingratitude. Some of us need to learn more about our own beliefs, and acknowledge both the good and the bad in them. Some of us need to look within at ourselves and our own civilization before we criticize. Some of us need to remember our debts to atheist freedom fighters like A. Phillip Randolph and W.E.B. Dubois before carping about the evils of atheism. #dailyrant #rantover


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