Disassociation Is Not An Option

by Dr. Muneer Fareed

Those who thought life in the West would require no more than paying taxes are painfully discovering that just being Muslim has its costs. And for some, such costs are becoming increasingly onerous. From the gory images of bodies mangled by suicide bombings to those of bellies distended by civil war and hunger, Muslims in the West are frequently called upon to explain the behavior of their fellow believers. This is not easy, given that reports on Islam and Muslims grow increasingly tragic, increasingly wacky. It is one thing to explain the political violence that conventional wisdom considers uncivilized; it is quite another to do the same with such bizarre punishments as whipping rape victims or incarcerating well-meaning teachers!

Critics of Islam are having a field day. To secularists, this is a classic case of theological overreach, of political Islam’s attempts to control the world gone awry. This, they claim, is the unfortunate consequence of mixing religion with politics, the dark underbelly, if you will, of an undifferentiated religion that refuses to separate the sacred from the profane. To religio-fascists bent on demonizing Islam, this is more evidence of an ungodly creed that encourages violence instead of peace, that is intolerant of other faiths, and that continues to oppress defenseless women. This puts tremendous pressure on us living in the West, for we become the unintended conciliators of acts and utterances over which we have little control.

We would like our brothers and sisters overseas to condition their behavior to assuage the sensibilities of our societies. We would like them to save us the endless embarrassments of having to explain acts performed by them in the name of Islam. And we would like them to remember our predicament whenever they react violently or oddly to their own. We would like them to do all of the foregoing, and more... but to them, that is asking too much!

Muslims outside the West act in ways problematic to us because of issues germane to their societies, rather than to ours. The Gibbons case in Khartoum, for example, had all the ingredients of a Third World soap opera. There was Sarah Khawad, the secretary of the very school in which Gibbons taught, wanting to use the teddy bear incident to avenge her own dismissal from that school. On failing to turn some parents against this British teacher, she registered a formal complaint with the Ministry of Education. The person in charge in the ministry may well have dismissed this charge as trivial, but for the fact that the government of Sudan was itself being hammered by religious extremists for capitulating to outside pressures on Darfur. To ignore this alleged slight of the Prophet (salla Allahualayhi wa sallam), and that too by a European “infidel,” would be to add credence to the claims of those critics.

The regime in Saudi Arabia is, if anything, in a more precarious situation. Since its very beginning, that regime has used Islam to legitimize its authority. To that end, titles such as khadim al-haramayn (servant of the two sacred houses) were coined to both replace the more politically radioactive titles of khalifa, sultan, and others, as well as to crown the king with a halo of cosmic authenticity. The plan, in such cases, is almost always to use Islam for legitimacy and then to control its usage by anyone critical of the status quo. But events seldom follow plans, as the Saudi government is slowly learning. Turning that nation’s obsession with creedal purity and ritual rectitude into an arm of foreign policy brings with it considerable blowback. It is one thing to strong-arm recent converts and others less familiar with the complexities of interpretation to follow the letter of the text, and quite another to ask one’s judiciary to interpret those same texts in light of the current human rights culture. Doing so in the rape case is confounded by two additional factors: one, the rape victim, according to media reports, is a Shi’ah and, two, the clamor for clemency is coming largely from abroad. Any concessions made to either one of these groups would be seen as a sign of weakness. What with extremists crawling out of the woodwork, any perceived weakness on the part of the current regime would only further embolden Saudi radicals.

Our options are unfortunately limited, and disassociation is not one of them. Both the structure of our faith as well as the media’s perception of our oneness makes any attempt to paint our Islam as any different from theirs rather disingenuous. The task, therefore, is to empower ourselves not just with the facts of a case, but also with the religious arguments that influence it. The average Muslim, I concede, is not in a position to do either of the two, but he or she can certainly demand of his religious authorities that they respond quickly and comprehensively with the information required. Currently, this is not being done.

Posted January 16, 2008. Dr. Muneer Fareed is the Secretary General of ISNA. This article was printed in the January/February 2008 issue of "Islamic Horizons”, it is posted here with the author's permission.