February 24, 2019

A Different Take on American Muslim Progressivism and Identity Politics

A response to a Medium post, "On American Muslim Progressivism and Identity Politics", by Mobeen Vaid: 

This is a thought provoking piece that I disagree with. By way of opening up a line of critique, consider this short passage from the author: "This recalibrated politics represents a radical departure from the American Muslim community of yesterday that spoke with pride of Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali, not as cultural symbols who shared an overlapping “identity” with themselves, but as people who contributed in positive ways to society, lived admirably, and embodied the ethics, morals, and values that — and here lies the crucial difference — emerge from a life informed by God’s instruction."
Now I have no doubt that many American Muslims did just that. But to reduce of the history of the 'American Muslim community'-- replete with personality disputes, insane theological hair-splitting, cult-like thinking, ethnic/racial tensions, and a number of prominent spiritually abusive figures-- to a simple group of united pious folks, and to then contrast that putative piety of the past in such a way that subtly communicates that today's activist and progressive Muslims don't seek to live a life informed by God's instruction, is not an argument grounded in actually existing histories. It is a form of cultural anxiety dressed up in the clothes of nostalgia.
It is worth noting in passing that today's focus on sexual autonomy as the far boundary point between 'what Islam believes' and the alleged degeneracy of modern culture, sometimes obscures a useful fact to remember: that Muslim communities of the past argued just as passionately, with plenty of Quranic justification, over issues Muslims today view as relatively minor. In all likelihood in a hundred years or less, controversial issues we now consider pressing will have been definitively resolved and the consensus will be incorporated into religious discourse, through strategic forgetting.
The author asks: "Will we stand by idly and preside over the effective secularization of American Muslims and the reduction of “Muslim” to a mere social identity marker?"
Assuming for a moment that this reduction is what is actually happening, what would *not* idly standing by look like? The author provides some clues about how he thinks about these things in another essay (https://medium.com/…/on-gender-wars-metoo-and-building-a-pr…):
"Muslims need to speak forthrightly about the sex-specific obligations of the Shari’a, even when they are inegalitarian. Obedience to one’s husband in matters of good is necessary for a healthy household (with due recognition to the typical machinations of household disagreement, of course). Non-maḥram men and women must maintain reasonable separation within parameters established in the Shari’a, and both should lower their gaze with the other, particularly when shahwa is felt. Khalwa is impermissible and should not be disregarded absent dire circumstances. Men must retain their responsibility as qawwām over women — providing financially, guiding spiritually, and protecting socially (even — and especially — against those malefactors in our midst)"
These are confident assertions of the necessity of patriarchal control. But unless Muslims are in a position of majoritarian political power, most of these ideas cannot be practically implemented without causing massive social chaos and fitna. The answer often given in response individualizes the response; Muslims 'should want' to implement these things in their own life to protect their piety. There ought to be space for such patriarchal piety to exist; you cannot legislate it out of existence as it forms a deeply held part of the psyche of millions of people. But let us imagine the implications of implementing some version of this vision in a public sphere.
Mobeen Vaid, like many neo-traditionalists, is relatively naive to the pitfalls of that implementation. In the current political climate, most of these proposals would mean instantiating a millet-like form of internal religious government in which 'Muslims' as a bloc govern themselves as Jews did in the Ottoman empire or as Copts do in modern Egypt. Is Vaid prepared for what this entails: the abandonment of the struggle for equal civil rights in a secular public sphere? Vaid completely ignores that many religious people have confidently balanced a set of private conservative beliefs with commitment to a more robustly liberal public sphere. In Vaid's model, it appears that, unless patriarchal piety is publically implemented in the Muslim community, it does not deserve the name of Islam. He quotes Dr. Sherman Jackson, but does not engage with Jackson's concept of the "Islamic secular".
A self-governing Muslim community in the US under patriarchal law would basically look a lot like Mormonism. In fact, many Muslim communities have attempted to replicate the model of Mormons. Very few succeed in overcoming the inherently cult-like dynamic of that kind of formation. The further danger these strictures represent to faith can be understood by imagining what should happen when Muslim parents, like well meaning religious parents in many contexts, attempt to 'crack down' and 'enforce' this hyper-patriarchal model on their children. In societies where patriarchal piety is enshrined in law, private sexual morality is a matter of public anxiety and concern. More often than not, one can observe the spiritual rot this authoritarianism produces. In fact it is rebellion against the harshness of these strictures that is the main producer of atheism in religiously authoritarian states. Progressive Muslim culture, for all its foibles, acts as an invaluable safety valve for critical questioning of internal community dynamics. I want to ask Vaid if he think issues like the imam grooming underage girls in Texas, or Mawlana Saleem in Chicago would have come to light without a critical lens on patriarchal piety, by which to hold the community accountable and shine a light on its processes of governance? The anti-authoritarian impulse of progressivism gives a huge fillip to struggles against the abuse of this patriarchal model. Right now, there are a number of morally upright liberal/left alternatives in the American counterculture that don't come with the heavy baggage of patriarchal purity culture. Vaid would have you believe those are a liability to the Muslim community and an affront to the ummah's piety as a whole. I regard this as an immature view because it does not realistically address the implications of implementing patriarchal piety in governance and law, nor the positive aspects of having a spectrum of thought on social issues without resorting to false universalism.
The emphasis on reviving patriarchy as the route to reviving piety raises some interesting questions as to which of the many Muslim social issues should take precedence for the US-based ummah, for Vaid's is not the dominant model of public engagement. Modern Muslim social justice orgs in the US have rightfully given precedence to liberation theology as the entry point for Islam into the public sphere. But perhaps Muslims should focus more on sexual issues, as Vaid suggests. What about allying with right-wing evangelicals and Catholics on abortion? Or joining evangelical Christians in advocating for a reversal of same-sex marriage equality? This tactic has to be considered very carefully in a climate of Islamophobia. Do Muslims in the US have sufficient institutional power to wage these battles? And at what cost?
Finally, what about socio-religious issues where Muslims would stand alone? How much priority is it prudent to give to issues that were once an integral part of the tradition? Should the Muslim community advocate the government to have the right to punish apostates, as is mentioned in the tradition? Should Muslims advocate for all women who are unmarried to travel with a male companion? Should they endorse the Prophetic sunna of holding slaves and taking concubines? Vague resorts to imagined ideals of 'sacred activism', 'Quran and sunnah', 'ultimate commitments to God' are simply not cutting it. They will all ultimately fail to stem the tide. And in spite of the tone of that essay, not all of that tide is negative. Allowing people to think of themselves beyond and outside of Abrahamic religious identities, esp the globally hegemonic ones of Christianity and Islam, is a positive development overall for religious faith.
The anxiety that many people of faith, whether Christian, Muslim or Jewish, feel at modern statist liberalism is authentic and must be acknowledged and mitigated as much as possible. In many cases the deeply rooted beliefs of religious communities provide some of the best critiques of injustice, tyranny and greed. But religious commentators shouldn't just get a pass in the name of infusing the public square with piety. Instead, anyone within those traditions who is interested in critical thinking ought to scrutinize what is being offered as an alternative to overcome this anxiety. Most of the times the rhetoric of these alternatives far outruns the practical reality of their implementation. Many times there are extremely compelling reasons for rejecting these alternatives, and not all of them need to have some explicit scriptural justification. Some of them are pragmatic, others are deeply rooted in prophetic akhlaq, others in general understandings of the fragility of knowledge, others in a spiritual discipline against religious ressentiment.
postscript: It ought to be noted that this nexus of anxiety-nostalgia I describe also underlies a great deal of modern Hindutva discourse about liberalism. Although tempered in the US by Muslims being a minority, today's global neo-traditionalism shares some profound similarities with the Hindu right wing, in its nostalgia for an imagined social unity, its anxiety about changing forms of sexual autonomy for women, and its antagonistic relationship to modern science. Like the Hindu right, neo-traditionalists are wont to discuss Islam primarily as an aggrieved and victimized subject who has been betrayed by modern liberalism, even in societies where Muslims are an overwhelming majority.

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