This is a response to Ali A. Rizvi’s Huffington Post Blog:
An Open Letter to Moderate Muslims
In the following, black text is from the original article, and the colored text is my response.
Mr. Rizvi begins:
Let’s start with what I’m not going to do.
I’m not going to accuse you of staying silent in the face of the horrific atrocities being committed around the world by your co-religionists. Most of you have loudly and unequivocally condemned groups like the Islamic State (ISIS), and gone out of your way to dissociate yourselves from them. You have helped successfully isolate ISIS and significantly damage its credibility.
“accuse”? – Wise people make use of their very best faculties when leveling an accusation against an individual. We put our facts in order, give due consideration to the character, honor, and human fallibility of the accused, and proceed with much caution. Here, however, you begin to betray an elitist mentality. Here’s how it comes across: “Oh thee broadly-mixed demographic of over 1 Billion Muslims ! I have ascended my pedestal, lifted my golden finger, and stand ready to tell all of you how it is !”
Yes. Many of our scholars have voluntarily done a write-up of Islam’s accusations against ISIS. Others of us have felt compelled to make public our internal condemnation and horror, because the media and various individuals keep calling us out. Understand: in my 27 years as a Muslim, I have never known nor encountered any Muslim who would ever consider such barbaric behavior as that we see from ISIS, which used to be al-Qaeda in Iraq, hence displaying the same brutality we used to see with Abu Musab al-Zarqawy. What I hear from Muslims on a daily basis: this barbarity has nothing to do with us, nor our religion, nor our values, we are tired of the false association put on by the media and various individuals (like the author of this article), and we are very tired of feeling compelled to apologize and/or denounce their atrocious behavior. The open letter of our Islamic scholars to ISIS and their maniacal leader Baghdadi can be read here: http://lettertobaghdadi.com/index.php
Mr. Rizvi said : “dissociate”? When or how have we ever been associated ? To suggest such is a hurtful slander against us !
Mr. Rizvi said : “co-religionists”? No more broadly-defined, Hitler was a public Catholic and private skeptic. Should we label him a co-religionist with other Catholics and skeptics, laying the onus of dissociation from mass-murder and genocide on today’s Catholics and atheists ?
I’m also not going to accuse you of being sympathetic to fundamentalists’ causes like violent jihad or conversion by force. I know you condemn their primitive tactics like the rest of us, maybe even more so, considering the majority of victims of Islamic terrorists are moderate Muslims like yourselves. On this, I am with you. I don’t think you are with us. I think you are patronizing in an ostensible manner, indicating a delusional superiority in your self-perception.
But I do want to talk to you about your increasingly waning credibility — a concern many of you have articulated as well.
Why do we NEED credibility? Typically, we live our normal human lives and want solutions to social disorder and murder like anyone else. Did you stop everyone on the street and ask them them to prove the “credibility” of their disdain for ISIS ?
Also, what has actually caused the “waning” of this imaginarily required credibility ? Is it because over 1 Billion Muslims exist every single day in the same mode of life as all other human beings ? Has that demoted us on the totem-pole of credibility? Or is this article another of 1,000 attempts to discredit Muslims ? Or is it the fact that some publicized atheists and/or folk who do not share our beliefs have not actually debated with anyone representing Islam, thereby creating a delusion in your own minds that Muslims are losing credibility ?
You’re feeling more misunderstood than ever, as Islamic fundamentalists hijack the image of Muslims, ostentatiously presenting themselves as the “voice of Islam.” And worse, everyone seems to be buying it. They have done their hijacking, the media has done its hijacking, and you are doing yours.
The frustration is evident. In response to comedian Bill Maher’s recent segment ripping liberals for their silence on criticizing Islam, religious scholar Reza Aslan slammed him in a CNN interview. Visibly exasperated, he ultimately resorted to using words like “stupid” and “bigot” to make his points. (He apologized for this later.) Has anyone elected Aslan to be the spokesman for Islam? Or the spokesman for Muslims? Is it not pre-established bigotry to assume that Mr. Aslan somehow represents over 1 Billion Muslims or our Religion? On an entirely different note, have you ever been on international TV, jammed into a time-limited, assaultive discussion that’s being driven with a whip towards ill-conclusion ?
We’ll get to Aslan’s other arguments in a bit. But first, let’s talk about something he said to his hosts that I know many of you relate to: that moderate Muslims are too often painted with the same brush as their fundamentalist counterparts. This is often true, and is largely unfair to moderates like yourselves. “largely unfair”? – What’s the difference between associating Muslims with murderers, and associating Mr. Rizvi with the same murderers? Do you have anything to do with them ? Neither do we.
But you can’t simply blame this on the “ignorance” or “bigotry” of non-Muslims, or on media bias. Non-Muslims and the media are no more monolithic than the Muslim world you and I come from. Yet you have a small “front” of media presenting a big misperception, while this could be altered. When the media has presented a daily barrage of “ugly news” from parts of the world where Muslims happen to exist for the last 40 years, and has not accompanied that with a similar presentation of the daily lives of actual Muslims doing the things we Muslim human beings do, that’s a profoundly misleading and mind-bending bias.
And how do you compare the “monolithic”-ness of 1 Billion Muslims to that of a couple hundred “news” communicators? In the basic study of economics, we learn the concept of oligopoly. In political science, oligarchy. Media is an oligopoly. Muslims are over 1 Billion, from every country on earth, with thousands of cultures, etc. No comparison. The media oligopoly has quite easily broadcast an extremely narrow view of the world’s 1+Billion Muslims. We Muslims have no such amenities.
Here’s a Gallup article describing anti-Muslim sentiment:
and another describing the active efforts to create Islamophobia in the U.S.: http://www.americanprogress.org/issues/religion/report/2011/08/26/10165/fear-inc/
The problem is this: moderate Muslims like you also play a significant role in perpetuating this narrative — even if you don’t intend to. Yes, that’s actually what over 1 Billion of us are doing everyday. We’re not working for a living, raising and educating our children, working for humanity, or being productive members of society. What we’re really doing is perpetuating the false narrative that Muslims are murderers.
To understand how, it’s important to see how it looks from the other side. And, you speak for “the other side” now ? How much of “the other side” do you represent ?
Tell me if this sounds familiar:
(1) A moderate Muslim states that ISIS is wrong, they aren’t “true” Muslims, and Islam is a religion of peace. The Muslim shouldn’t need to state anything. Has anyone asked you to answer for Skinheads because some of them are atheists and they abound in secular societies ?
(2) A questioner asks: what about verses in the Quran like 4:89, saying to “seize and kill” disbelievers? Or 8:12-13, saying God sent angels to “smite the necks and fingertips” of disbelievers, foreboding a “grievous penalty” for whoever opposes Allah and his Messenger? Or 5:33, which says those who “spread corruption” (a vague phrase widely believed to include blasphemy and apostasy) should be “killed or crucified”? Or 47:4, which also prescribes beheading for disbelievers encountered in jihad?
Verse 4:89 – discussing a group of double-agents living among the Muslims. They would pretend to be Muslims by day, and consort with those trying to kill the Muslims by night. In any moral code or intelligent understanding of life, they are criminals and extremely dangerous. No government on earth today would leave such people free to commit murder. And at the time, the Muslims were a tiny, weak minority surrounded by dangerous enemies, without means for making prisons or what-not. The law for them was the same it would be in any battlefield: court-martial and execution. AND, the following verse shows the way out for them: “Except for those who take refuge with a people between yourselves and whom is a treaty.”
Verse 8:12-13 – That’s the doing of The Almighty. Has nothing to do with Muslims except that The Almighty sent angels to assist them.
Verse 5:33 – describing an incident in which the Prophet was betrayed and his representative was murdered. Whereas the US has practiced hanging, a lethal injection, or electrical frying for murder, and the French and Brits practiced beheading, this verse opens up the potential for various rulings in punishing dangerous criminal behavior. In fact, other verses permit the payment of blood-money and/or forgiveness in cases believed to have been accidental. However ISIS or any individual idiot abuses these verses is immaterial. Again, if you aren’t required to answer for Jim Jones, John Hinckley, or ISIS, the Muslims aren’t either. Criminals draw their “inspiration” from any source that suits them. One could read Tolkien and assume the “duty” to kill any ugly person that reminds one of an orc. Although there is solid reason to blame on these murdering “Muslims” for their ignorant abuse of The Qur’an, there’s no basis whatsoever to blame the Book itself when it clearly states “ We decreed upon the Children of Israel that whoever kills a soul unless (as penalty for killing) a soul or for corruption [done] in the land – it is as if he had slain mankind entirely. And whoever saves one – it is as if he had saved mankind entirely. And Our Messengers had certainly come to them with clear proofs. Then indeed many of them, [mankind] after that, throughout the land, were transgressors.”
THERE IS NO SOCIETY TODAY, OR IN HISTORY, THAT HAS EXISTED WITHOUT CRIME OR VIOLENCE. Crime happens because some humans commit crime. Unjustified violence is a radical crime that has no correlative cause in Religion. The key word is radical; the key source is selfishness. The last century has seen the deaths of nearly 200 Million people by political motivation alone. Practically NONE of which can be attributed to religion, much less to Islam or the decisions of common Muslims !
Is it not a more plausible consideration that US foreign policy, which has directly caused the deaths of at least 30 Million people since WWII, has more to do with radical violence? Is it not worthwhile to examine and see if there is any correlation between today’s radical violence in MENA, and the continuous crimes perpetrated by the Israeli invasion and occupation of Palestine ? Do we turn a blind eye and blank mind to the dealings of the CIA, Mossad, and their partners, while it’s known that the CIA has instigated or conducted dozens of wars since their formation? While it’s known that the CIA has been charged with eliminating all alternatives to America’s corporatracy throughout the world? While it’s known that the CIA has recruited, gathered, and trained so many of the people who make up today’s ISIS? Please get in touch with history. Without it, you’re shooting spit-wads in the dark at fabricated bogeymen !
Because enough has been said to expose the fallacies in Mr. Rizvi’s statements, I will now turn to offering some perspectives.
“Secular” societies are an experiment that’s only a few hundred years old. Islam maintained an advanced, just, humanitarian, egalitarian, forward-moving society much longer than that. And we are already witnessing a rapid and catastrophic decline in the experiment known as The United States of America, and its failure threatens to destroy most of us over the next few decades. And despite the illiterati discussions, Islam is a remarkably open system that takes all options into consideration. It’s all too easy to idealize ones own thoughts while failing to see the big picture of reality.
To boldly state that “Islam needs reformers” while leveling one’s accusations against some verses of The Quran is a self-initiated destruction of one’s claims. HUMAN SYSTEMS need reformation ! It’s obvious to any half-wit that the existing political and economic order is what’s destroying us and is, in fact, at the root of all the problems we see. To insinuate that a small clan of terrorists, the huge body of humans called Muslims, or a Holy Book, are the root of evil in the world is straying wide from the mark of addressing real issues or providing actual solutions. So, now, I ask Mr. Rizvi directly: Are you, in any way, enjoying the destruction of your mother-people, by the wars of political and economic manipulation, or the climate destruction that’s causing their flooding? If your answer is “no”, then please get on board with those of us trying to address real problems !
With over 1 Billion Muslims in the world, if 1% of us wanted to destroy humanity, we’d read up on the uses of cyanide and explosives, make our schemes, begin our assault, and be done with all this ridiculous discussion in a week. Since this is obviously NOT happening, I suggest that everyone get caught up with reality. I truly hope the bent-heads in our societies, including our industrial leaders, politicians, and media manipulators, don’t continue succeeding in leading all of us to complete destruction. There are enough lesser but cascading tragedies happening every day already.
Mr. Rizvi and each of us, including myself, are daily participants in social, political, and economic systems that are destroying our ecosystem, starving 25,000 human beings to death daily, and subjugating the vast majority of us to poverty, misery, war, and inhumanity. The global activists who put our hours into salvaging what humanity has left are actually quite few in terms of percentage of total population. We are in an era that will see a collapse in the competition-based economy called capitalism. We will wipe out the majority of remaining forests. By 2050, we will eliminate most oceanic life. Throughout this rapid decline and potential demise of the human race, there are those of us who will continue seeking to hoard all wealth and power to ourselves, manipulating public policy, and creating wars under bogus pretenses. And there are a growing number of us who will resist this trend, seek to educate our fellow citizens, and dream of an existence based on cooperation. There is no time for intelligent people to waste on perpetuating the losing side of the battle for our existence.
I must rest and be ready for work tomorrow. I will be working for a living, providing excellent service to my non-Muslim customers, enjoying conversation with them, and later working to help people in my community. I won’t be plotting to kill anyone, and have never encountered such people. I hope I won’t have to waste much more of my life responding to highly-publicized articles of ignorance such as the one posted by Mr. Rizvi. Life is too short, and there’s so much good to be done.
(this is where my commentary ends. The rest is just a continuation of Mr. Rizvi’s complaints and “accusations”.)
(3) The Muslim responds by defending these verses as Allah’s word — he insists that they have been quoted “out of context,” have been misinterpreted, are meant as metaphor, or that they may even have been mistranslated.
(4) Despite being shown multiple translations, or told that some of these passages (like similar passages in other holy books) are questionable in any context, the Muslim insists on his/her defense of the Scripture.
Sometimes, this kind of exchange will lead to the questioner being labeled an “Islamophobe,” or being accused of bigotry, as Aslan did with Maher and his CNN hosts. This is a very serious charge that is very effective at ending the conversation. No one wants to be called a bigot.
But put yourself in the shoes of your non-Muslim audience. Is it really them linking Islam to terrorism? We’re surrounded with images and videos of jihadists yelling “Allahu Akbar” and quoting passages from the Quran before beheading someone (usually a non-Muslim), setting off an explosion, or rallying others to battle. Who is really making this connection?
What would you do if this situation was reversed? What are non-Muslims supposed to think when even moderate Muslims like yourselves defend the very same words and book that these fundamentalists effortlessly quote as justification for killing them — as perfect and infallible?
Like other moderates, Reza Aslan frequently bemoans those who read the Quran “literally.” Interestingly enough, we sort of agree on this: the thought of the Quran being read “literally” — or exactly as Allah wrote it — unsettles me as much as it unsettles Reza.
This is telling, and Reza isn’t alone. Many of you insist on alternative interpretations, some kind of metaphorical reading — anything to avoid reading the holy book the way it’s actually written. What message do you think this sends? To those on the outside, it implies there is something lacking in what you claim is God’s perfect word. In a way, you’re telling the listener to value your explanations of these words over the sacred words themselves. Obviously, this doesn’t make a great case for divine authorship. Combined with the claims that the book is widely misunderstood, it makes the writer appear either inarticulate or incompetent. I know that’s not the message you mean to send — I’ve been where you are. But it is important to understand why it comes across that way to many non-Muslims.
If any kind of literature is to be interpreted “metaphorically,” it has to at least represent the original idea. Metaphors are meant to illustrate and clarify ideas, not twist and obscure them. When the literal words speak of blatant violence but are claimed to really mean peace and unity, we’re not in interpretation/metaphor zone anymore; we’re heading into distortion/misrepresentation territory. If this disconnect was limited to one or two verses, I would consider your argument. If your interpretation were accepted by all of the world’s Muslims, I would consider your argument. Unfortunately, neither of these is the case.
You may be shaking your head at this point. I know your explanations are very convincing to fellow believers. That’s expected. When people don’t want to abandon their faith or their conscience, they’ll jump on anything they can find to reconcile the two.
But believe me, outside the echo chamber, all of this is very confusing. I’ve argued with Western liberals who admit they don’t find these arguments convincing, but hold back their opinions for fear of being seen as Islamophobic, or in the interest of supporting moderates within the Muslim community who share their goals of fighting jihad and fundamentalism. Many of your liberal allies are sincere, but you’d be surprised how many won’t tell you what they really think because of fear or political correctness. The only difference between them and Bill Maher is that Maher actually says it.
Unfortunately, this is what’s eating away at your credibility. This is what makes otherwise rational moderate Muslims look remarkably inconsistent. Despite your best intentions, you also embolden anti-Muslim bigots — albeit unknowingly — by effectively narrowing the differences between yourselves and the fundamentalists. You condemn all kinds of terrible things being done in the name of your religion, but when the same things appear as verses in your book, you use all your faculties to defend them. This comes across as either denial or disingenuousness, both of which make an honest conversation impossible.
This presents an obvious dilemma. The belief that the Quran is the unquestionable word of God is fundamental to the Islamic faith, and held by the vast majority of Muslims worldwide, fundamentalist or progressive. Many of you believe that letting it go is as good as calling yourself non-Muslim. I get that. But does it have to be that way?
Having grown up as part of a Muslim family in several Muslim-majority countries, I’ve been hearing discussions about an Islamic reformation for as long as I can remember. Ultimately, I came to believe that the first step to any kind of substantive reformation is to seriously reconsider the concept of scriptural inerrancy.
And I’m not the only one. Maajid Nawaz, a committed Muslim, speaks openly about acknowledging problems in the Quran. Recently, in a brave article here right here on The Huffington Post, Imra Nazeer also asked Muslims to reconsider treating the Quran as infallible.
Is she right? At first glance, this may be a shocking thought. But it’s possible, and it actually has precedent.
I grew up in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, before the Internet. We had an after-school tutor who taught us to read and recite the Quran in classical Arabic, the language in which it’s written.
My family is among the majority of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims — concentrated in countries like Indonesia, India, Pakistan, Turkey and Iran — that doesn’t speak Arabic. Millions of us, however, can read the Quran in Arabic, even if we don’t understand it.
In most Muslim households, the Quran is physically placed at the highest place possible. In our house, it was at the top of a tall bookshelf. It cannot be physically touched unless an act of ablution/purification (wudhu) is first performed. It cannot be recited or touched by menstruating women. It is read in its entirety during the Sunni taraweeh prayers in the holy month of Ramadan. In many Muslim communities, it is held over the heads of grooms and brides as a blessing when they get married. A child completing her first reading of the Quran is a momentous occasion — parties are thrown, gifts are given.
But before the Internet, I rarely met anyone — including the devoutly religious — who had really read the Quran in their own language. We just went by what we heard from our elders. We couldn’t Google or verify things instantaneously like we do now.
There were many things in the Quran we didn’t know were in there. Like Aslan, we also mistakenly thought that harsh punishments in Saudi Arabia like decapitation and hand amputation were cultural and not religious. Later, we learned that the Quran does indeed prescribe beheadings, and says clearly in verse 5:38 that thieves, male or female, should have their hands cut off.
Now, there are also other things widely thought to be in the Quran that aren’t actually in there. A prominent example is the hijab or burka — neither is mentioned in the Quran. Also absent is stoning to death as a punishment — it’s mentioned in the hadith(the Sunnah, or traditions of the Prophet), and even in the Old Testament — but not in the Quran.
Neither male nor female circumcision (M/FGM) are found in the Quran. Again, however, both are mentioned in the hadith. When Aslan discussed FGM, he neglected to mention that of the four Sunni schools of jurisprudence, the Shafi’i school makes FGM mandatory based on these hadith, and the other three schools recommend it. This is why Indonesia, the largest Muslim country in the world, mostly Shafi’i, where Aslan said women were “absolutely 100% equal” to men, has an FGM prevalence of at least 86%, with over 90% of families supporting the practice. And the world’s largest Arab Muslim country, Egypt, has an FGM prevalence of over 90%. So yes, both male and female genital cutting pre-date Islam. But it is inaccurate to say that they have no connection whatever to the religion.
That is the kind of information I could never reliably access growing up. But with the Internet came exposure.
Suddenly, every 12-year-old kid could search multiple translations of the Quran by topic, in dozens of languages. Nothing was hidden. It was all right there to see. When Lee Rigby’s murderer cited Surah At-Tawbah to justify his actions, we could go online and see exactly what he was talking about. When ISIS claims divine sanction for its actions by citing verse 33 from Surah Al-Maaidah or verse 4 from Surah Muhammad, we can look it up for ourselves and connect the dots.
Needless to say, this is a pretty serious problem, one that you must address. When people see moderates insisting that Islam is peaceful while also defending these verses and claiming they’re misunderstood, it appears inconsistent. When they read these passages and see fundamentalists carrying out exactly what they say, it appears consistent. That’s scary. You should try to understand it. Loudly shouting “Racist!” over the voices of critics, as Ben Affleck did over Maher and Sam Harris last week, isn’t going to make it go away.
(Also, if you think criticizing Islam is racist, you’re saying that all of Islam is one particular race. There’s a word for that.)
Yes, it’s wrong and unfair for anyone to judge a religion by the actions of its followers, be they progressive Muslims or al Qaeda. But it is appropriate and intellectually honest to judge it by the contents of its canonical texts — texts that are now accessible online to anyone and everyone at the tap of a finger.
Today, you need to do better when you address the legitimate questions people have about your beliefs and your holy book. Brushing off everything that is false or disturbing as “metaphor” or “misinterpretation” just isn’t going to cut it. Neither is dismissing the questioner as a bigot.
How, then, to respond?
For starters, it might help to read not only the Quran, but the other Abrahamic texts. When you do, you’ll see that the Old Testament has just as much violence, if not more, than the Quran. Stoning blasphemers, stoning fornicators, killing homosexuals — it’s all in there. When you get about ten verses deep into Deuteronomy 20, you may even swear you’re reading a rulebook for ISIS.
You may find yourself asking, how is this possible? The book of the Jews is not much different from my book. How, then, are the majority of them secular? How is it that most don’t take too seriously the words of the Torah/Old Testament — originally believed to be the actual word of God revealed to Moses much like the Quran to Muhammad — yet still retain strong Jewish identities? Can this happen with Islam and Muslims?
Clearly from the above, the answer is a tried-and-tested yes. And it must start by dissociating Islamic identity from Muslim identity — by coming together on a sense of community, not ideology.
Finding consensus on ideology is impossible. The sectarian violence that continues to plague the Muslim world, and has killed more Muslims than any foreign army, is blatant evidence for this. But coming together on a sense of community is what moves any society forward. Look at other Abrahamic religions that underwent reformations. You know well that Judaism and Christianity had their own violence-ridden dark ages; you mention it every chance you get nowadays, and you’re right. But how did they get past that?
Well, as much as the Pope opposes birth control, abortion and premarital sex, most Catholics today are openly pro-choice, practice birth control, and fornicate to their hearts’ content. Most Jews are secular, and many even identify as atheists or agnostics while retaining the Jewish label. The dissidents and the heretics in these communities may get some flak here and there, but they aren’t getting killed for dissenting.
This is in stark contrast to the Muslim world where, according to a worldwide 2013 Pew Research Study, a majority of people in large Muslim-majority countries like Egypt and Pakistan believe that those who leave the faith must die. They constantly obsess over who is a “real” Muslim and who is not. They are quicker to defend their faith from cartoonists and filmmakers than they are to condemn those committing atrocities in its name. (Note: To their credit, the almost universal, unapologetic opposition against ISIS from Muslims is a welcome development.)
The word “moderate” has lost its credibility. Fareed Zakaria has referred to Middle Eastern moderates as a “fantasy.” Even apologists like Nathan Lean are pointing outthat the use of this word isn’t helping anyone.
Islam needs reformers, not moderates. And words like “reform” just don’t go very well with words like “infallibility.”
The purpose of reform is to change things, fix the system, and move it in a new direction. And to fix something, you have to acknowledge that it’s broken — not that it looks broken, or is being falsely portrayed as broken by the wrong people — but that it’s broken. That is your first step to reformation.
If this sounds too radical, think back to the Prophet Muhammad himself, who was chased out of Mecca for being a radical dissident fighting the Quraysh. Think of why Jesus Christ was crucified. These men didn’t capitulate or shy away from challenging even the most sacred foundations of the status quo.
These men certainly weren’t “moderates.” They were radicals. Rebels. Reformers. That’s how change happens. All revolutions start out as rebellions. Islam itself started this way. Openly challenging problematic ideas isn’t bigotry, and it isn’t blasphemy. If anything, it’s Sunnah.
Get out there, and take it back.