The Making of the Muslim Reformist Movement

I went to a government school in the American south where I had constant interaction with religious supremacists. Such people believe that their moral mandate must be given preference, if not outright dominance. In the south, these people were Christian. Their imperative was to acquire converts who would eventually help make their political programme the law of the land.

Many times I put up with the noise of evangelical youth preaching on the steps with a megaphone. I was condemned to hell in class discussions. English teachers had to tread carefully through 19th century literature so as not to offend. I had to politely reject, and then oppose, Bible study groups.

My brother and I were the only Muslims in the school. We lamented the ceaseless invasion of our personal conscience by "these fundos."

After a couple of years, a number of Muslim students enrolled at the school. They were also upset with the endless Christian proselytising. Since many of them were family friends, they took me aside and urged me to help them set up an Islamic society. Its primary purpose would be to hold Quran study circles, correct anti-Muslim propaganda in textbooks, and - "just like the Christians do" - invite students to learn about their religion. All on school property. Their goal, just like the Christians, was evangelism (the Arabic term is da'wa). They presented two white boys with new Muslim names as proof of their success. As I left, my acquaintances couldn't understand why I wouldn't help them. "It's just da'wa!" they said. "It's a free country!"

There it was, in the microcosmic world of high school, staring at me in the face: the Muslim right. Or, as my brother pejoratively called them: "Falwell Muslims."

Today, it is undeniable that traditionalist clerical Islam - which is quietist, meek, and oriented towards the status quo - has lost its monopoly over Muslims. This is the result of multiple instances of internal dissent over a millenia (as well as colonialism). Led by a mixture of cleric-minded Muslims in the US, UK, and Jordan, traditionalist clerical Islam is trying to make a comeback and become more relevant - like by writing a letter of peace to the Pope. Though such efforts are good, it is a case of too little too late.

Instead, Islam is well on its way towards an individualist revolution; one that no amount of clerical effort can contain.

The most attention-grabbing child of this revolution has been jihadism. However, it is not the most successful. That (dis)honour lies, in my mind, with the Muslim evangelicals - also known as Islamism, the Muslim right, or political Islam. It is a great fallacy to think that jihadists and Islamists are one and the same.

The Muslim right is an ideological movement. Why not? When rationalism is rampant and clerics can't bind Muslims together, ideology is the best thing to obtain mass obedience.

Islamism's ideological aim is secular, ie political power. Yet, despite its secular ends, it makes its political base among a large swath of religious Muslims. With their religious supremacism - which convinces them that everyone else's life would be better off if they adopted the same values as them - these Muslims leave themselves wide open to be preyed upon by savvy propagandists. Thus, hateful tricks like invoking the dangers of homosexuality, attacking sexual liberation, demonising religious minorities and foreign cultures, and censoring anything that smacks of critical thinking, are all used to keep the ideological base stirring.

With that base in hand, Islamism then agitates for unfettered democracy. It purports to speak for the "common man" (even as it preys upon it) and acquires a populist mystique. Islamism doesn't fear elections because it is the best of the grassroots propagandists.

The Muslim right is international. It played off the Cold War and in a Machiavellian stroke made the US its benefactor. It ended up creating a decentralized international network. Jamat-e-Islami in Pakistan consulted with Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt; the Brotherhood then, with "tacit support" from their self-professed enemies, created Hamas. Then the Sunni Islamists went and assisted Khomeini, pragmatically putting aside their doctrinal disagreement with the Shia for the sake of shared ideology. Taking inspiration from these successes, copycats rose up in Gulf and African states. For publicity and fund-raising purposes, the Muslim right brought its evangelism to the west. Muslim children coloured by this ideology ended up in school with me, asking me to help them set up an organisation that does exactly what Christian supremacists do.

So the dilemma for 21st century Islam is that there is a group of Muslims who with "activists" instead of "clerics" have reined in Muslim individualism, organized it into a system, injected it with illiberal values, and then invoked non-violence and freedom of speech as a shield to hide behind. If I had not seen Karl Rove do it with American Christianity I could have never realized how the Muslim right does it with Islam.

So what is to be done?

Well, secular tyrannies are inadequate. Monarchies are dictatorial. Outright Islamophobia and directly demonizing Islam gives fuel to Islamism. Military confrontation is out of the question for ethical and pragmatic reasons.

I recommend creating a viable and well organized Muslim left. It would be an intra-religious movement as opposed to a universalist one (though obviously it doesn't shun allies). It would be a cousin of the international left, but in a Muslim garb. Just as the Muslim right found Islamic means to justify the destructive ideas from the enlightenment (Fascism, Marxism, totalitarianism, evangelical religion), the Muslim left should find Islamic means to justify the positive ones (anti-foundationalism, pragmatism, autonomy, tolerance).

This Muslim left should also espouse the following basic ideas, without being limited to them:

  • separation of mosque and state;

  • opposition to tyranny (even if the tyrant has liberal values);

  • affirmation of republicanism or democracy;

  • an ability to coherently demonstrate that the Muslim right represents merely one interpretation of Islam;

  • a commitment to free speech and eagerness to defeat the Muslim right in the marketplace of ideas;

  • opposition to economic protectionism;

  • opposing any and all calls for a "council of religious experts" that can oversee legislation (even if those experts are liberals); and

  • affirming international law.

Muslim leftists will - it is a must - have to be able to articulate all of these in Islamic terms, in order to persuade the people who need to be convinced, ie Muslims. This means that a Muslim leftist will, naturally, also have facility in the Muslim traditions. The real-world paucity of individuals with such dual facility is indicative of how far behind Muslim leftism is currently.

Further, in order to advance these ideas, the Muslim left will have to be sophisticated enough to employ certain strategies. These include but are not limited to:

  • Popularising the slogan "theocentric, not theocratic" to counter claims of religious treason that will be hurled by Islamists;

  • An alliance with supporters of old-school Muslim orthodoxy who despite their conservative values are not the same as the Muslim right because they do not like to politicise their faith. These Muslims, by virtue of doctrine and history, have always supported separation of mosque and state, and still do;

  • Having the confidence to call their solutions truer to the ethos of Islam than the ideas of the Islamists, without engaging in apostasy wars;

  • Opposing any and all punishments, fines and stigma for "apostasy," "heresy," and "blasphemy". This includes opposition to all "sedition" crimes;

  • Accepting that the enthronement of the left through democratic means might require the intermediate step of the Muslim right succeeding as well, due largely to its head-start;

  • Supporting arts, literature, agnosticism and atheism without engaging in derogatory or insulting gestures. The battle against Islamism isn't a fight against Allah or Prophet; it is against an ideology;

  • Supporting Muslims' right to express their piety with beards, hijab, niqab in order to draw the moderates among the pietists away from the Islamists; and most importantly

  • Opposition to all imperial western behaviour. Also, rejection of any and all alliances and support from the western right.

Muslim leftism is the only thing that will assure that Islam's individualist revolution doesn't take an even darker turn than it already has. Some in the Muslim right like to insist that they are moderate and ready for pluralism. That might be a bit of wishful thinking. Without a potent Muslim left, the right will not have an adequate check, nor any incentive to make accommodations. This is because political systems that rest on religious supremacism rarely make compromises. We know this from America. We know it from the third world as well. After more than two decades the Iranian right has failed to move significantly towards the center. If unchallenged, better should not be expected from the Egyptian, Pakistani, or Gulf nations equivalents.

In a recent post for the Guardian series on Islamic reform, entitled "Muslim Secularism and its Allies," I shared a number individuals worldwide who are on the Muslim left. They come to us from multiple Muslim countries and their works should be noted and monitored by the Western media.

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